China Breaks Silence on Student Quake Toll

Published on
by
The Sydney Morning Herald

China Breaks Silence on Student Quake Toll

by
John Garnaut

A Sichuan earthquake survivor looks out from a window at a temporary Earthquake Relief Hope School in Yongxing town of Mianyang, Sichuan Province, May 8, 2009. China on Thursday said 5,335 schoolchildren died or remained missing from the earthquake, a much lower number than estimates compiled from news reports at the time and projected by some experts and critics. (REUTERS/Jason Lee)

BEIJING - Chinese officials said more than 5000 students were killed
in the Sichuan earthquake, breaking an official silence that has lasted
almost one year.

The official student death toll from the
earthquake on May 12 last year had been kept under wraps as authorities
battled to contain a public backlash about shoddy school buildings.

The
"tofu" schools became an emblem of government corruption as well as
China's glaring inequalities. In some towns, schools for ordinary
people collapsed while government buildings and schools for the
children of officials remained unscathed.

Tu
Wentao, head of Sichuan's Education Department, told journalists in
Chengdu yesterday that 5335 students were dead or missing following the
Sichuan earthquake. The quake also left another 546 students disabled,
he said.

Despite the belated release of the figure, the
authorities are not growing more relaxed about public discussion of the
subject: censors assiduously removed online discussion, and some
official efforts to prevent reporting on the "tofu schools" have badly
misfired.

Yesterday a senior Sichuan official went as far as
accusing foreign journalists of fomenting mass dissent. "A very few
journalists are not going to the disaster area to report, but are
inciting the crowds, asking people to organise," Hou Xiongfei,
vice-head of Sichuan's provincial propaganda department, told reporters
in Chengdu. "We do not welcome these kinds of people."

Clifford Coonan, of The Irish Times,
said he had gone to Sichuan to report about the hurt, suffering and
human resilience until he was detained by police on Wednesday.

"I
didn't come to write a negative story, and I certainly didn't come to
write a story about myself," he said, adding that that was what he has
now had to do.

Jamil Anderlini, of the Financial Times, said he was assaulted by village officials on Tuesday and then Mianyang city police on Wednesday.

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