Angry parents protest collapse of China's schools

JUYUAN, China — Parents seething over the earthquake-triggered collapse of school buildings that killed their children are starting to take action.

The incipient protests, if they grow, could prove embarrassing for officials worried that a spotlight may be placed on shoddy construction of schools that led to the deaths of thousands of students in a May 12 earthquake.

At a small stand near the Juyuan Middle School, where some 400 students were crushed in the collapse of a building, the only building to crumble in the vicinity, angry parents Wednesday gathered signatures on a petition and contemplated filing a lawsuit.

"We want compensation," said Zhang Xianqin, who lost his 15-year-old son at the school. "I want justice. Why did just schools collapse in this whole area?"

Parents milled about the small desk on a sidewalk, where a volunteer opened up the petition, in which more than 100 parents had affixed their signatures and red thumb prints. The petition demands punishment for officials in the local education bureau.

"We want to find out who is responsible," said Xiao Xuanyong, a 38-year-old farmer, adding that the four-story school, with 18 large classrooms, should not have completely crumbled in the 7.9-magnitude quake.

The official death toll from the quake stood at 41,353 victims Wednesday. China hasn't said how many school children died in thousands of collapsed classrooms.

Relief for the earthquake-hit region of Sichuan Province has turned into an event of national unity and solidarity, leading to donation drives that have captured $1.8 billion and drawn steady streams of volunteer workers into the quake zone. Beijing Monday declared three days of "national grief," closing movie theaters, banning other recreational activity and organizing vigils in city squares that have turned into patriotic rallies.

Parents of perished school children, though, said their tragedy had been largely overlooked.

"Nobody comes to show any concern. The government never came. Only the journalists come," said Feng Lixia, whose 14-year-old daughter, He Yu, died at the middle school.

In Beijing, a senior official reiterated a variation on a pledge first made by Premier Wen Jiabao that those responsible for substandard buildings would be punished.

Li Rongrong, head of China's Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, which oversees state companies, promised to punish any state-owned companies found to have built schools that collapsed in the quake.

"If these buildings (that collapsed) were built by major state-owned firms, we will take severe measures," Li said.

In another rural district near Dujiangyan, named Xiang'e, a middle school and an elementary school both collapsed, killing some 400 students.

A disgruntled resident, Ma Fucui, who said she lost a nephew in the collapse, held up a brick taken from the rubble of the middle school and rubbing off faux cement, citing it as an example of illicit cost-cutting in school construction.

"Look, it's just sand. It's not cement. Normally, cement wouldn't crumble like this," she said, picking off chunks.

She said local residents "are angry. They are trying to search for the principal. The principal has run away. Nobody has seen him since (the earthquake)."

Asked why the principal had left the village of 15,000 residents, she said: "He couldn't face the parents."

Chinese journalists, some of them blogging under pseudonyms, are joining the campaign to seek redress for shoddy school construction. Some have set up a website to list the schools that collapsed.

So far, the list includes 175 schools, with a total of 8,365 classrooms and dormitories. Last week, the state Xinhua news agency filed a report listing the schools destroyed as more than 6,800, mistaking classrooms destroyed for schools in an English-language report. McClatchy Newspapers carried the erroneous report.

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