CHINA'S KACHING KACHING DYNASTY
China Presses Hush Money on Grieving Parents
By EDWARD WONG
HANWANG, China - The official came for Yu Tingyun in his village one evening last week. He asked Mr. Yu to get into his car. He was clutching the contract and a pen.
Mr. Yu's daughter had died in a cascade of concrete and bricks, one of at least 240 students at a high school here who lost their lives in the May 12 earthquake. Mr. Yu became a leader of grieving parents demanding to know if the school, like so many others, had crumbled because of poor construction.
The contract had been thrust in Mr. Yu's face during a long police interrogation the day before. In exchange for his silence and for affirming that the ruling Communist Party "mobilized society to help us," he would get a cash payment and a pension.
Mr. Yu had resisted then. This time, he took the pen.
"When I saw that most of the parents had signed it, I signed it myself," Mr. Yu said softly. A wiry 42-year-old driver, he carries a framed portrait of his daughter, Yang, in his shoulder bag.
Local governments in southwest China's quake-ravaged Sichuan Province have begun a coordinated campaign to buy the silence of angry parents whose children died during the earthquake, according to interviews with more than a dozen parents from four collapsed schools. Officials threaten that the parents will get nothing if they refuse to sign, the parents say.
Chinese officials had promised a new era of openness in the wake of the earthquake and in the months before the Olympic Games, which begin in August. But the pressure on parents is one sign that officials here are determined to create a facade of public harmony rather than undertake any real inquiry into accusations that corruption or negligence contributed to the high death toll in the quake.
Officials have come knocking on parents' doors day and night. They are so intent on getting parents to comply that in one case, a mayor offered to pay the airfare of a mother who left the province so she could return to sign the contract, the mother said.
The payment amounts vary by school but are roughly the same. Parents in Hanwang, a river town at the foot of mist-shrouded mountains, said they were being offered the equivalent of $8,800 in cash and a per-parent pension of nearly $5,600.
Flush with tax revenues after two decades of double-digit economic growth, China has used its financial muscle to make Beijing and Shanghai into architectural showcases and to open diplomatic doors in developing nations. At times, the state also acts like a multinational corporation facing a product liability suit, offering money to people with grievances in hopes of defusing protests. Most people, the government assumes, ultimately put profit before principle.
The tactic appears to work, including in the cases of the collapsed schools. Many parents said they signed the contract, even if they were displeased with the terms and still angry at the lack of any real investigation.
"Most of the parents now feel tired of this," said Liu Guanyuan, 44, whose 17-year-old son died here, along with Mr. Yu’s daughter, in the collapse of Dongqi Middle School. "There's a Chinese saying: The people sue the government, and the government doesn't care."
Officials are also using more traditional arrows in their authoritarian quiver: riot police officers have broken up protests by parents; the authorities have set up cordons around the schools; and officials have ordered the Chinese news media to stop reporting on school collapses. A human rights advocate trying to help some parents, Huang Qi, has been jailed.
Local government leaders have repeatedly promised to get to the bottom of why a staggering 7,000 classrooms collapsed in the quake, killing about 10,000 children. But there is little evidence that they have conducted more than a cursory examination, and there are hints of a cover-up. Even as negotiations with some parents continue, local governments have bulldozed the remains of many schools, appearing to close the door on a full investigation.
The issue remains one of the most delicate facing the Chinese government. Many parents accuse local officials of negligence or corruption during the construction of the schools. Some say they still hope the central government will take action, and they plan to go to Beijing to file petitions after the Olympics.
"We don't want to get the government in trouble ahead of the Olympics," Mr. Yu said. "We don't want to hurt the nation's image."
[SUBTEXT: We don't want to be tortured or imprisoned by the Chinese Government]
Mr. Yu was among 11 parents and relatives of dead children from Dongqi who met with a reporter on Monday in a teahouse where shirtless men played mah-jongg. They said they were willing to risk talking to journalists in hopes that the central government would take notice.
Last week, Mr. Yu and about 10 parents were detained by the police during a protest. He said he was interrogated at a police station in the nearby city of Deyang for 12 hours, while other parents from the protest, including a pregnant woman, were beaten.
One woman, Huang Lianfen, said, "The local government has threatened us with beatings or punishment."
Ms. Huang, 33, a factory manager, is the aunt of an 18-year-old boy who died in the Dongqi collapse. She said her brother, the boy's father, was detained by the police last week and had so far refused to sign the contract.
"We're asking not only for compensation, but also for justice," she said.
On Monday, a vice mayor of Deyang, Zhang Jinming, met with the Hanwang parents and delivered the conclusion of his government's investigation, the parents said. The school, he told them, collapsed solely because of the earthquake. He said the case was now closed.
Government offices in Sichuan Province and Deyang ignored a reporter's calls seeking comment. A woman at the police headquarters in Deyang said she was unaware of the protest and detentions last week.
The New York Times obtained a copy of the compensation contract offered to parents from Hanwang. It is written as if the parents were appealing to a beneficent ruler for money.
"From now on, under the leadership of the party and the government, we will obey the law and maintain social order," it says. "We vow resolutely not to take part in any activity that disturbs post-earthquake reconstruction."
Another section is full of praise for the Communist Party: "Natural disaster is merciless, but the world is full of love. The party and the government reached out their hands to us and mobilized society to help us and alleviate our hardships. In this regard, we sincerely appreciate the help and care from the party, government and society!"
The contract does not state the payment amount, which officials discussed orally, the parents say.
One father, Ye Liangfu, said it was unfair that parents of high school students were not getting more than parents of younger children who died.
"Those parents whose kindergarten children died, they're young, they can have another child," he said.
Other parents who said they were asked to sign a contract represented Xinjian Primary School in Dujiangyan, Juyuan Middle School in Juyuan and Fuxin No. 2 Primary School in Mianzhu. Hundreds died in those schools. In each case, as here in Hanwang, buildings around the school remained standing.
"I heard that most of the parents in our school have signed it," said Wang Lan, whose 8-year-old son died in the Xinjian collapse. "We parents can't do anything about it. We're helpless."
Ms. Wang is staying with an aunt in Guangdong Province. She said in a telephone interview that the mayor of her township near Dujiangyan had called her several times to ask her to fly back by July 25 to sign the contract, which is for $10,000 in cash and an unknown pension amount.
Ms. Wang told the mayor the plane ticket was too expensive.
"If it's too expensive, I'll pay back the money to you when you return, even with my own money," the mayor said, according to Ms. Wang. He even offered to send a car to the airport to pick her up, she said.
"I think the higher government must have placed a lot of pressure on the lower government," Ms. Wang said. "They're very nervous and pressed us so urgently to sign the paper."
Ms. Wang said she was told that the ruins of Xinjian Primary School would be cleared away by Aug. 1.
Other schools have already suffered that fate. On Saturday, the remains of Fuxin No. 2 Primary School were cleared out, said Zhang Longfu, whose daughter died there.
"All the parents from the school have signed the agreement, although we're not very satisfied with it," Mr. Zhang said. "We're still thinking of petitioning later."
Several Fuxin parents declined to meet for interviews, a sign of how effective the government's intimidation tactics have been. Those parents were once among the most vocal protesters. A photograph of several of them carrying portraits of their dead children and yelling at a kneeling government official became an intensely resonant image after the earthquake.
The parents from Hanwang say they are also worried that the Dongqi school will be torn down before a real investigation is conducted.
Before sunset on Monday, Mr. Yu walked along a river running past the eastern wall of the school compound. Peering over the wall, one could see piles of bricks and concrete all over the ground. He pointed out the few standing ruins of the main building. His daughter's classroom had been on the fourth floor.
He said she had lived for two days after being buried alive, like some other students. She had even called out to him.
"We could hear them under the rubble," he said. "We passed them milk and water, but it was no use."
He smoked and stared at the debris.
Would the parents try protesting again? he was asked.
"We don't dare," he said.Z
Huang Yuanxi contributed research.