One Year after Earthquake, Silence Imposed on Schoolchildren Deaths, Activists Harassed

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One Year after Earthquake, Silence Imposed on Schoolchildren Deaths, Activists Harassed

Chinese Human Rights Defenders

May 4, 2009

As the first anniversary of the devastating May 12 Sichuan Earthquake approaches, parents of children who died buried under collapsed schools have found little solace as officials continue to obstruct efforts to review the causes and consequences of the tragedy.

Although the government had pledged to investigate the deaths of students and to hold individuals accountable if shoddy construction was to blame, a promise it reiterated in the National Human Rights Action Plan released last month, no report on the number of children killed or the structural quality of the collapsed school buildings has yet been published. Instead, the government has actively prevented individuals from performing independent investigations and suppressed efforts by families to take legal actions by detaining and intimidating individuals who attempt to do so.

CHRD calls on the Chinese government to make public its own assessment of the conditions of the collapsed school buildings and a comprehensive list of student casualties. CHRD also urges the government to immediately release Huang Qi (黄琦) and Tan Zuoren (谭作人), and to cease the harassment of other individuals who attempt to conduct independent investigations or provide legal counsel to victims’ families.

Official gag rule on truth about casualties

“The unprecedented openness wisely adopted by the government immediately following the earthquake was encouraging, but very short-lived. It was soon replaced by a wall of silence and an atmosphere of intimidation. Officials must have feared that investigations may turn up dirty secrets and cost them their jobs, which explains the harsh crackdowns on activists in Sichuan and harassment of others who came to do their own investigations,” said Renee Xia, CHRD’s international director.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, questions were already being raised about the quality of school buildings, as the number of schools which collapsed, burying children and school staff, seemed to be disproportionately higher than other buildings in the quake areas. In response to the public outcry, government officials promised a thorough investigation.

However, in less than a month’s time, the attitude of the government had changed dramatically– officials and various “experts” started to explain the casualties away as the result of all factors but those man-made, culminating in an article featured prominently in a number of major Sichuan and Chengdu newspapers, including Chengdu Daily and Sichuan Daily, on June 25, 2008, “The Earthquake Is the Culprit for the Destruction of Buildings; Survivors Should Look to the Future with Rationality(地震是毁房罪魁幸存者应理性看未来)”[1]. The article, which summarized the opinions of about 20 “experts” in a conference hosted by Chengdu Academy of Social Science, said that the magnitude of the earthquake was the main reason for the buildings’ collapse, that it would be impossible to evaluate the quality of the buildings after they had collapsed and that it would be impossible to seek legal responsibility for the deaths of students because “multiple factors led to the collapse of the buildings.” Most recently, on March 8, 2009, Wei Hong (魏宏), Deputy Governor of Sichuan Province, mentioned at a press conference the “conclusive opinion” of architectural “experts” and “authoritative agencies” was that “the high magnitude and intensity of the Wenchuan earthquake was the most direct and primary reason for the collapse of schools and the damage of other facilities.”[2]

How authorities and experts came to their “conclusive opinion” on the cause of the collapsed schools remains unclear. Not one single report on the quality of construction of these schools has yet been released. In fact, it is unclear whether the government even conducted investigations, and if they did, the experts and institutions behind the research are likewise unknown.

The government has also failed to make public a comprehensive list or the total number of students killed in the earthquake. Various government officials have mentioned wildly disparate estimates of student casualties: 6,581 on May 21, 4,737 on May 26, and then 19,065 on November 21, the last and highest estimate was later denied as a mistake, according to Tan Zuoren (谭作人) and Xie Yihui (谢贻卉), two activists who recently released a report on the student casualties and collapsed school buildings in the earthquake.[3] Wei, the Deputy Governor of Sichuan Province, said in the same March 8 press conference that “the final number of student victims… involves complicated operations and procedures…Therefore, the exact number of student victims will not be available before the final determination of the death toll and number of this earthquake.” Wei, however, did not reveal when these numbers would be made available to the public.

Activists harassed for conducting independent investigations

Sichuan authorities have also obstructed efforts by activists to uncover the truth about student deaths in collapsed schools and to seek accountability. They have arrested or detained several activists (at least two remain in police custody, while others have been released or on bail), harassed and intimidated those who tried to conduct investigations, and disrupted postings of activists’ findings on websites and blogs.

Huang Qi (黄琦), human rights activist and director of Tianwang Human Rights Center (, was kidnapped off the street by a number of unidentified men on June 10, 2008. Huang was later discovered to have been detained by the police. A few days before his detention, Huang met with some of the families who wanted to file lawsuits against officials allegedly responsible for the shoddy school buildings in which students died during the earthquake. Huang has been charged with “illegal possession of state secrets” and, eleven months after he was first taken into custody, is still awaiting trial.[4]

Tan Zuoren (谭作人), an environmentalist and writer,[5] was detained by Chengdu police on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power” on March 28. In February, Tan released a proposal calling on internet volunteers to travel to Sichuan Province to compile a list of students who died in the earthquake, to investigate the quality of school buildings and the treatment of parents whose children died in the earthquake. Tan had hoped to finish his investigation by the first anniversary of the earthquake.[6] The unfinished results of the investigation conducted by Tan and his partner, Xie Yihui (谢贻卉), were recently released. (Available online at: /Article/Class1/200904/20090427094857_15145.html)

Ai Weiwei (艾未未), a prominent artist and social critic, has posted on his blog lists of schoolchildren killed in the earthquake, compiled by volunteers.[7] A number of Ai’s blog articles were removed by editors on Sina Blog and his volunteers have been repeatedly harassed and interrogated by the authorities during the course of their investigations. For example, on April 1, three volunteers were intercepted while conducting an investigation in Shifang City, Sichuan Province. The volunteers were interrogated and threatened by the police, forcibly returned to Chengdu and had their cameras’ memory cards, compiled lists of student casualties, diaries and other materials forcibly confiscated. Police told the volunteers that their investigation was “definitely illegal” but did not tell them which laws they violated.[8]

Similarly, Tan and Xie were repeatedly harassed while they carried out investigations in Sichuan in early 2009. Other individuals, who do not wish to be named, have also reported harassment and interference by Sichuan police for photographing, filming and conducting interviews in and around sites of collapsed schools.

In his latest count, on May 3, 2009, Ai had collected the names of 5,161 students who died in the disaster and he estimated that the total student casualties would be just under 8,000[9]; Tan and Xie counted 5,799 student casualties in their incomplete survey.

Despite the government’s rhetoric of respecting survivors and victims, grieving parents have been prevented from seeking accountability for the deaths of their loved ones and survivors have been intimidated for questioning the authorities’ handling of the earthquake. A Beijing human rights lawyer who met with parents in the earthquake areas was told that local courts would not accept any cases related to their children’s deaths. The lawyer suspects that the decision not to accept the cases wasn’t local, but rather from the central government. Liu Shaokun (刘绍坤), a teacher who volunteered in the Sichuan relief effort, was taken into police custody on June 5, 2008, reportedly for posting pictures online of the aftermath of the earthquake and expressing outrage at the alleged official corruption which led to the collapse of school buildings.[10] Zeng Hongling (曾宏玲), a survivor of the May 12 Sichuan earthquake, was taken into police custody and detained on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power” on June 9, 2008, reportedly for posting a series of articles online about the earthquake that were critical of the government under the pseudonym Binbin (彬彬). Both Zeng and Liu were reportedly later released, though Liu was first sent to Re-education through Labor (RTL) for one year, then allowed to serve his term at home.[11] Yang Peiqun (杨培群), a representative of earthquake victims from Guilin Village, Xujia Township, Dujiangyan City, Sichuan Province, was taken into custody while petitioning in Beijing on September 22, 2008. Yang wanted to expose the use of falsified accounts to misappropriate relief funds and materials by the local cadres in the village. Yang was released only after her husband paid the local cadres RMB 5,000.[12]


To deny citizens the answers to their questions a year after the Sichuan earthquake violates their right of access to information, guaranteed by Article 19 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which China has signed but not yet ratified. The Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on Open Government Information, effective days before the earthquake struck on May 1, 2008, also guarantees Chinese citizens’ access to government information that “involves the vital interests of citizens”.

CHRD calls on the Chinese government to keep the promise it made in the National Human Rights Action Plan to “respect earthquake victims” and “register the names of people who died or disappeared in the earthquake and make them known to the public.”[13] The government should conduct its own investigations and allow independent investigations, making public findings on the quality of collapsed schools. Reports should include information about the process and methodology of the investigations as well as the officials, departments and experts involved. A comprehensive list of students who died in the earthquake should also be released. If it is not possible to release them immediately, the government should make public a concrete timetable for the release of the results of the investigations.

CHRD also urges the government to immediately release Huang Qi and Tan Zuoren. The detentions of Huang and Tan seriously violate their rights to freedom of expression as well as access to information. Similarly, authorities should immediately cease the harassment of the artist Ai Weiwei and his volunteers who are conducting independent investigations, stop interrogating and intimidating parents of those who died in the earthquake and other individuals for seeking legal accountability of officials responsible for the collapse of schools, and end online censorship on web contents critical of the government’s handling of the earthquake.

Media contacts for this release:

Renee Xia, International Director (English and Mandarin): +852 8191 6937

Wang Songlian, Research Coordinator and English Editor (English, Mandarin and Cantonese): +852 8191 1660

[1] Chengdu Government website, “The Earthquake is the culprit for the destruction of buildings; Survivors Should Look to the Future with Rationality <地震是毁房罪魁 幸存者应理性看未来>”, June 25, 2008,

[2] Wei Hong, “Wei Hong’s Briefing to the Press on Post-quake Reconstruction”, March 8, 2009,

[3] Tan Zuoren and Xie, “An Investigative Report of the Student Casualties in the Earthquake by Tan Zuoren et. al. <谭作人等人就地震死难学生的调查报告>”, /Article/Class1/200904/20090427094857_15145.html

[4] CHRD, “Human Rights Defender Huang Qi Formally Arrested”, July 18, 2008, /Article/Class9/Class10/200807/20080719105359_9496.html; CHRD, “Human Rights Defender Huang Qi Disappear, Feared Detained by Police”, June 12, 2008,

[5] CHRD, “A Brief CV of Tan Zuoren” (in Chinese), /Article/Class18/tanzuoren/200905/20090501230753_15228.html

[6] CHRD, “Sichuan Activist Detained before Earthquake Anniversary”, April 1, 2009, /Article/Class9/Class10/200904/20090401142033_14615.html

[7] Ai Weiwei, Ai Weiwei Blog,

[8] Ai Weiwei, “Sichuan Police Obstructs the Work of Ai Weiwei in the Investigation of Student Causalities <四川警方阻扰艾未未的地震死难学童调查工作>”, April 4, 2009, /Article/Class53/200904/20090404021406_14693.html

[9] Ai Weiwei, “Analysis of and Recommendations on the Collection of Lists <名单收集状况分析及建议>”, April 28, 2009,

[10] CHRD, “Sichuan Teacher Detained for Questioning Government’s Role in Earthquake Toll”, China Human Rights Briefing, June 16 to 30, 2008,

[11] CHRD, “Blogger on Sichuan Earthquake Detained on “Inciting Subversion”, China Human Rights Briefing, June 16 to 30, 2008,

[12] CHRD, “Sichuan Earthquake Victims’ Representative Held for Random in “Law Education Class””, China Human Rights Briefing October 1-15, 2008, /Article/Class9/Class10/200811/20081105083516_11563.html


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