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China Arrests Grieving Parents

3 minute read
Bill Powell/Dujiangyan

Guo Danqing is a 55-year-old man who drives a three-wheeled pedicab for a living in Dujiangyan in Sichuan province. He walks with a pronounced limp because of a birth deformity, which makes his work that much more arduous. He lost his wife to cancer seven years ago. And on May 12, 2008, he lost what he told TIME was “my own reason for living.” His daughter, Guo Hongli, 15, was crushed to death in the collapse of the now infamous Juyuan Middle School, 60 kilometers north of Sichuan’s provincial capital Chengdu. He was there at the school on Sunday, for a silent “Children’s Day protest,” demanding that the government explain to parents why the school collapsed when all other buildings around it stood firm. In Dujiangyan on Sunday, with police and plainclothes security officers looking on, Guo Danqing told TIME that his daughter, Hongli, had been a good student. He thought that she might eventually go to college. She would take care of him in his old age.

Many parents in Sichuan province know what Guo’s loss is like — and share his insecurity for the future. And, as the police watched, they have bravely stood in angry, if mostly silent, mourning, extraordinary scenes of protest in authoritarian China. Today, however, the police in Dujiangyan signaled that the government has had enough of these public displays. Three weeks of forbearance — driven by an overwhelming national sympathy for the plight of grieving family members like Guo Danqing — ended. As Li Changchun, the fifth ranking ruler in China’s communist party, visited nearby “heritage sites” damaged by the great Wenchuan quake, 100 parents, according to a wire service report, gathered again to protest. And for the first time since May 12, the police intervened. They broke up the demonstration and dragged the parents away.

It is unclear as yet whether they have been detained overnight or released, or whether Guo Danqing was among those arrested. Several parents told TIME last Saturday that they were considering bringing a lawsuit against the provincial government, hoping to pressure it into a thorough investigation of whether shoddy construction brought down the Juyuan Middle School and many others like it throughout Sichuan province, when the quake hit. According to wire reports, some parents shouted that they wanted to sue even as they were dragged away. All this came just a couple of days before one of China’s unmarked days of mourning, the anniversary of the crackdown on the Tiananmen Square demonstrations on June 4, 1989.

The provincial government in Chengdu on Tuesday began distributing payments to parents who lost their only child in the quake. The initial payment was the equivalent of $144 per family per year for as long as the parents are alive. Aid workers today told TIME that parents in Mianzhu, a devastated city about 90 kilometers northeast of Chengdu, learned about the payment on Saturday and marched to a local government office to complain about what a pittance it was. Police dispersed them. On Tuesday, government officials stressed that the $144 payment is only a start — that further funds will be disbursed after the government completes a region-wide investigation as to why so many school buildings collapsed.

In Dujiangyan on Sunday, Guo Danqing was inconsolable as he thought of his lost daughter. “She was smart,” he says, and then his voice trailed off. Asked if he had faith that the government would investigate thoroughly the cause of his child’s death, he shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t know.” And with that he limped away.

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