Sichuan earthquake, 10 years on

Sichuan earthquake: grieving parents still clinging to a premier's promise, unfulfilled

A generation of children was lost when shoddily built school walls came tumbling down in an earthquake a decade ago. Their families still want to know why

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 May, 2018, 12:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 May, 2018, 12:40pm

For 10 long years, grieving father Sang Jun has been clinging to a promise made by former premier Wen Jiabao to give parents an explanation for why their children were killed.

Sang’s 11-year-old son Sang Xingpeng was among the 126 children who died when Fuxin No.2 Primary School collapsed as a magnitude-8 earthquake devastated much of Sichuan province, including the small city of Mianzhu, on May 12, 2008. Just 175 pupils survived.

“Two days after the quake, Wen Jiabao came to Hanwang township [in Mianzhu]. He stood on the rubble telling us to go home to wait for news,” 49-year-old Sang said. “An explanation would be given so that our children would not have died in vain, he told us.”

Sichuan earthquake, 10 years on: how a tragedy changed China

But Sang is still waiting.

The bereaved parent is one of thousands who lost their only children in the quake, a disaster that destroyed thousands of school buildings across the province.

Officials say the shock waves were so great that nothing could have stopped the schools from collapsing. But parents say many of their children would have made it out alive if the schools had not been so shoddily built.

After the quake, these collapsed buildings were labelled “tofu” projects, a term former premier Zhu Rongji coined in 1998 to describe flimsy flood barriers on the Yangtze River.

While Fuxin No 2 Primary School collapsed, all the buildings around it remained standing, Sang said.

‘I’m numb to it all’: rebuilding quake-ravaged Sichuan, one brick and one life at a time

Sifting through the debris of the school, the parents could not find any reinforcement bars, and the concrete remnants crumbled in their hands, the pig farmer added.

“If this was completely the result of a natural disaster, I would have nothing to say … but how can we rest when the government insists that the school’s collapse was caused only by the shock waves from the quake?” he asked.

Instead of answers, the parents’ persistent petitions over the past 10 years have brought them round-the-clock surveillance, police intimidation and even detention.

Civil rights activist Tan Zuoren said that to outsiders, the quake anniversary was the only time to remember what happened in Sichuan a decade ago. But the parents who were robbed of their children relive the trauma of May 12 every day.

“Why won’t the parents give up fighting? They press on not just to meet an emotional need, but also because they simply have to see justice served,” Tan, 64, said. “They are not after financial compensation. They simply want an official apology.”

Tan, an anaesthetist before he became an activist, was jailed for five years in 2010 on state subversion charges after leading an independent investigation into poorly built schools.

Sang was also detained for a year for his activism. Today, he continues to lead a group of about 100 parents who make regular appeals for an official investigation into the substandard school buildings. But the number of parents taking part was falling, he said.


Sang was able to bury his son but other parents from what was Beichuan county – one of the hardest-hit areas – can do nothing because their children’s bodies are still under the rubble.

What is left of the county, a three-hour drive from the provincial capital of Chengdu, has been transformed into a monument, visited by millions each year.

At the site – which is silent but for the occasional chirp of a bird – stands a giant tombstone, erected for the thousands of people buried beneath it. Some victims crushed by collapsed government and commercial buildings have their names and pictures displayed on big boards beside the ruins.

Some victims, however, have been forgotten.

May 12, 2008, Sichuan earthquake in context

More than 1,000 students of Beichuan Middle School were killed when the school crumbled in the quake, and almost half of them remain buried deep under the ruins, according to parents and activists.

The bodies of more than 500 children were pulled from the wreckage and their remains cremated. Parents say they were denied access to the ashes, which were buried in an unmarked communal grave near the school.

The school site has since become the 5.12 Wenchuan Earthquake Memorial Museum, named after the quake’s epicentre.

Activist Tan said the museum was the result of the political ideology of Zhou Yongkang, the former Sichuan provincial party chief and state security tsar before he was toppled by corruption charges years later.

“To completely erase all geographical and landscape features near Beichuan Middle School so that people can’t recognise it, and to build a museum on top of it, is extremely cruel and inhumane,” Tan said.

“There are still more than 400 children who have yet to be dug out from the site. How can you change everything and build a museum on top of it to glorify the Communist Party’s leadership?”

Repeated calls for an official investigation into the school’s safety and lawsuits against school heads and contractors had all been ignored, the parents said.

Signs of hope amid the rubble

The authorities maintain that there is nothing to settle because the quake was a natural disaster.

“Because it’s a natural disaster, you can’t say that the government is required to compensate you. It’s out of humanitarian and government concern that people have been provided treatment and compensation,” Liu Jie, deputy inspector of the Sichuan provincial health and family planning commission, said last month.

Tan and his team of investigators found that about 7,000 schools across Sichuan were damaged by the quake. Of those, 2,000 were severely damaged and 20 appeared to be tofu projects.

Tan said it made no sense for the government to crack down on protesting parents rather than to address their needs for a fair investigation and hold those responsible to account.

“Those who persist in seeking justice are treated like criminals,” he said. “This is the biggest post-disaster catastrophe, and that’s why many of them are unable to move on from the pain.”


The Beichuan parents said their requests to bury their children’s cremated remains and to set up a communal tombstone nearer to their homes had also been denied.

A 52-year-old father who lost his 18-year-old son at the school said he would not give up fighting for his son to be remembered.

“For the past 10 years, we have been met with nothing but cruelty. If the government had been more humane towards us, it might have been easier for us to move on,” the man said.

Meanwhile Sang said that, with the earthquake’s 10th anniversary approaching, local officials warned him against speaking to the media.

“I was told I would have to pay the price for what I’ve done,” he said. “Well, let the world know how much of a price we have paid in our search for justice.”

But not every bereaved parent is as steadfast as Sang.

Zhang Jing, a Beichuan mother who lost her three-year-old daughter when the girl’s kindergarten was crushed under the crumbling school next door, destroyed all the information she had amassed for her petition. The materials included long lists of victims and evidence collected to prove that the schools had been poorly built.

“The government will never give us justice so I have no use for these materials any more,” she said.

Still, Tan is determined to keep helping those who press on.

“We can’t give up or there will be nothing left but despair. Achievement comes from accumulated progress, even at its tiniest. This is about basic morality and the human conscience,” he said.

“What we are doing now has nothing to do with state subversion. What is real subversion is [the government] politicising everything rather than upholding social and judicial justice and equality.”