2008: The article that showed how corruption contributed to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake’s terrible death count

2008: The article that showed how corruption contributed to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake’s terrible death count

On 12 May 2008, a devastating 7.9-magnitude earthquake shook China’s Sichuan province, resulting in the collapse of an estimated 21,600 buildings, including around 7,000 schools and the deaths of at least 70,000 people including 19,000 school students. In the aftermath of the disaster, human rights media 64 Tianwang denounced the shoddy design, due to local government negligence and corruption, that led to the collapse of almost all the school buildings in the province. 

Just weeks after this story was published, 64 Tianwang’s founder, prominent human rights activist and journalist Huang Qi, was arrested on suspicion of “illegally possessing state secrets,” for which he later served a 3-year prison term. In September 2008, a government committee admitted that many of the schools were built quickly during the economic boom and suffered from poor construction.

About 64 Tianwang

Chinese-language human-rights news website, 64 Tianwang, was founded in Sichuan, China, in 1998, by investigative journalist Huang Qi. It has documented tens of thousands of human rights violations in China and received the RSF Press Freedom award in 2016.  Huang Qi, who also received an RSF Press Freedom Award in 2004, was detained again in 2016 and is currently serving a 12-year prison term for “disclosing state secrets abroad.”


“Representatives of parents of students who died in Dongqi went to Tianwang to complain collectively”

By Volunteer Bo Hui

At noon, five representatives of parents of the students who were killed at Mianzhu City Hanwang Township’s Dong Qi Experimental Middle School following a major earthquake in May visited China Tianwang Human Rights Service’s office to file a collective complaint.

The five; Zou Xianhua, Yang Yunhai, Sun Xiuquan, Xu Anfeng and Yin Quanshu, are representing parents of more than 170 students who were killed following the 12 May Wenchuan earthquake in collapsed school buildings. They believed the poorly built middle school office buildings were the reason for the huge number of casualties. 

Sun Xiuquan told us that he is a Mianzhu City Banqiao Township native. His daughter, Sun Li, was a senior year student at Dong Qi and had just passed the initial exam to study at Sichuan Normal University College of Fine Arts after high school graduation.

Following the 12 May earthquake, I arrived at the collapsed school buildings around 3:30 p.m. At the time, around 100 firefighters and a rescue team sent by Dongfang Turbine Company were trying to rescue students trapped in the debris.

I saw parts of Dong Qi’s high school department, which was originally located on the collapsed building’s fourth floor, had fallen onto the ground floor. At least hundreds of students trapped in the building who were still alive were calling for help. Dong Qi school authorities were responsible for the on-site rescue mission.

At around 5 p.m., Dongfang Turbine Company sent food and drinking water to the site. I heard the school leaders say they had informed the Mianzhu City government of the latest situation.

On 12 May, there were frequent aftershocks, and the collapsed building was shaking every time they occurred. As the sky turned dark, the school authorities found the rescue team some generators with the help of Dongfang Turbine Company. However, the generators were not working properly until around 11 p.m.

Mianzhu City’s Communist Party chief Jiang Guohua also visited the site to learn of the latest situation there. Due to the fact that a more professional rescue team had yet to arrive at the scene and the loss of daylight, no significant progress on the rescue mission had been made.

I returned to the scene at 7 a.m. the following day and saw that the Fire and Rescue squad was there too. In the afternoon of 13 May, military personnel also arrived at the scene for the rescue mission. There was only one crane working at the collapsed site.

Eight of the 10 people who were rescued from the wreckages back then were still alive. Forty-eight hours after the building collapsed, we could still hear students trapped there crying for help from the wreckage. 

My daughter was found at 4 p.m. on 14 May. She had no apparent wounds on her body except some scratches on her head. But she was already dead.

Mr. Sun Xiuquan’s daughter Sun Li

When my daughter first enrolled at Dong Qi, the school had promised us that it would soon be moving to a new campus. In 2005, the school said it would be relocated to Mianzhu. My daughter had several times complained that the school’s old buildings were not to her liking.

Considering the high quality and responsible teaching of the school, however, I decided to have her continue her study in Dong Qi.

Zou Xianhua and Xu Anfeng affirmed their demands to the government concerning the collapsed school building: including a joint public-private sector investigation into the school’s construction. 

They said they saw when they sent and picked up their children at the school that there were cracks in the school’s buildings. Their children also told them that there were leakages whenever it rains. So how did these poorly-constructed buildings remain despite continuous complaints?

Also, the school authorities had enough money. Our children never asked us to give the school more donations whenever they called us. None of us student families think school teachers are to be blamed for the aftermath of the strong quake. But we don’t know why the school authorities continued to use the poorly-built building to teach our children and why no investigation results have been released about the safety of these buildings.   

These students’ parents said the official death tolls announced by school authorities so far and the number released by the media, which stands at 240, have a huge discrepancy. We believe the actual death tolls are far more than the official account.

They also demand national compensation for the children lost and conduct thorough probes into the massive collapses of public buildings and hold those responsible for the poorly-build constructions accountable. 

It is not easy for us to raise a child, and the country and school authorities need to compensate for our loss.

Swedish journalist Fredrik Önnevall interviewed Sun and other parents representatives

After these parents finished talking with us, Fredrik Önnevall, a reporter from Sveriges Television, who is visiting the office to interview Tianwang founder Huang Qi, also took the opportunity to interview Sun and the rest of these parents.