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China says 5,335 students died in last year's quake

Beijing had resisted releasing the figure as they denied charges that a disproportionate number of school collapsed in the quake, due to shoddy construction. Activists say it's too little, too late.

May 08, 2009|Barbara Demick

BEIJING — A Chinese provincial official said Thursday that 5,335 students died in last year's Sichuan province earthquake. To activists who had pushed for the release of the figure, it was too little and too late.

Parents of the dead children have been complaining for months that authorities were withholding the death toll to prevent the public from learning how many schools collapsed during the May 12 quake because of shoddy construction.

Others estimate that students accounted for as many as 9,000 of about 70,000 quake fatalities. Beijing artist Ai Weiwei, who has sent volunteers into Sichuan to collect names, has so far counted more than 5,000 students, with many hard-hit towns still untallied.

"Many people will doubt the accuracy of this figure," said Yang Licai, a volunteer. Still, he applauded the government for releasing the number.

"Whether or not it's the right figure, it is progress," he said. "The Chinese government recognizes that it needs to be more transparent and respond to the public's demand to know the truth."

The communist government is under pressure to show how much it has changed since the last natural disaster of this magnitude -- the 1976 earthquake in Tangshan, for which no credible death toll was ever released. The official figure of 242,000 was thought to be one-third the actual toll. Last month, the government, in its first-ever public assessment of its own human rights situation, made the release of the earthquake victims' names a goal for the year.

Parents have been clamoring for more information.

"Revealing the death toll of students is very important to us parents," said Chen Yujian, a truck driver from Shifang, who lost his 17-year-old son in the earthquake. "I hope now they can go further and publish the names of all the students, their age and where they died, and let the public see it in an earthquake memorial museum."

The figure of 5,335 dead was released by Tu Wentao, head of Sichuan's Education Department, in response to a reporter's question at a news conference in Chengdu, the provincial capital. Another official, Yang Hongbo, head of the province's Construction Department, disputed allegations that a disproportionate number of schools collapsed during the magnitude 7.9 earthquake.

"Experts who investigated this agree that it was impossible for buildings to withstand a seismic event of this magnitude," Yang said at the news conference.

Some studies suggest otherwise. A survey of 384 buildings by engineers from Beijing's Tsinghua University found 44% of schools damaged beyond repair, as opposed to 13% of government buildings.

The collapse of the schools is the most politically sensitive aspect of the quake aftermath. Many parents and volunteers have been harassed, detained and in some cases beaten after asking questions about the schools.

The Foreign Correspondents Club of China complained Wednesday of three incidents this week in which Western journalists reporting on the upcoming anniversary were roughed up and their camera equipment broken.

Responding to those allegations, Hou Xiongfei, a Sichuan province propaganda official, said Thursday that some "journalists are not going to the disaster area to report, but are inciting the crowd and asking people to organize. . . . We do not welcome those kinds of people."



Eliot Gao and Nicole Liu of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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