Qiao Long | Radio Free Asia
Eight years on from the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, many victims are still struggling to get by on state handouts as promised assistance fails to materialize, families worst hit by the disaster told RFA.
More than 80,000 people, thousands of them schoolchildren, died in the May 12, 2008 earthquake that devastated mountainous regions of the southwestern province, especially school buildings.
While China’s state media has been relentlessly upbeat about post-quake reconstruction in the worst-hit regions, dissidents who probed allegations of shoddy school construction linked to official corruption were later jailed on state security charges.
Parent campaigner Sang Jun, who lost his child in the collapse of the Fuxin No. 2 Primary School in Sichuan’s Mianzhu city, said that 129 students died when the school buildings collapsed on them.
“After the quake, they told us that we should have another child, and that the second child would get a free education,” Sang told RFA on Tuesday. “Our [second] child is in the second year of primary school now, but we still have to chase up the government.”
Sang said no payments have been forthcoming for his second child’s school fees. “A lot of [post-quake] children are in school now, but they haven’t had any financial assistance from the government.”
“We are all planning to launch another campaign outside the government,” he said.
No assistance despite promises
Mianzhu mother Deng Yongqiong, who lost her first child in the quake, also has a second who is of school age, Sang said.
“They got into a lot of debt after her husband got cancer, and now their kid is about to start school,” he said. “The government told us this would be free, but it’s not.”
“They are making stuff up for the media; actually we have to pay our own fees.”
Deng told RFA on Tuesday that she is in extreme financial difficulty.
“Our daughter has already started her second semester in school, but there is no fee waiver in place, and that has been the case for all of these kids, not just ours,” she said.
Deng said she and her husband are stuggling to get by on state subsistence payments of just 120 yuan (U.S.$18.50) a month.
“We have no livelihood and no income now. Neither of us do,” Deng said. “We get 120 yuan a month and that’s it.”
“I can’t pay all of my expenses and bills as it is.”
She said she had offered to work at her daughter’s school so as to pay her fees.
“They agreed at first, but … when I went there they said they didn’t need to hire anyone,” Deng said. “The government … has found every excuse to drag its feet.”
Harassed, beaten and detained
While top Chinese officials have declared the reconstruction in the wake of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake a success, rights activists say victims and campaigners have been harassed, beaten and detained in their fight to be heard.
Sichuan-based rights activist Huang Qi, who was jailed after he tried to probe allegations of corruption and forced evictions linked to the post-quake reconstruction program, said the government had put on a show of helping the victims.
“They made a lot of promises to the victims, but then they haven’t made good on them,” Huang said.
“They are now taking fees from the second children of quake-hit families who are starting school now.”
“A considerable proportion of quake victims are below the poverty line right now, and there is no way they can live in the current situation of high inflation on just over 100 yuan a month,” he said.
“I hope the government will make good on its promises as soon as possible, because they are in great hardship.”
Huang, founder of the Chengdu-based rights website Tianwang, was recently detained on Feb. 18 in a quake-hit area alongside two fellow activists and as he planned to meet with foreign journalists. He was released on Feb. 22.
He told RFA after his release that the government is anxious to avoid
any investigations into post-quake reconstruction in the region.
In November 2011, Huang was sentenced to three years in prison in after launching a probe into shoddy school construction in Sichuan for “illegally possessing state secrets” by the Wuhou District Court in Sichuan’s provincial capital, Chengdu.
Sichuan-based writer Tan Zuoren was jailed in May 2009 for “incitement to subvert state power” after he tried to probe the deaths of schoolchildren in the 8.0 magnitude quake.
And in December 2012, activist Li Yiqian was sentenced by the Beichuan County People’s Court after a detention lasting more than eight months for “gathering a crowd to disrupt social order,” after he persistently questioned missing funds for post-2008 earthquake reconstruction.
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