Protests flare over quake aid in China

Times Staff Writer

This county in Sichuan province sustained relatively little damage from the devastating May 12 earthquake. But nine days later, Luojiang felt one of the biggest political aftershocks: Thousands of residents jammed a public square here, demanding that local officials explain why relief supplies were misused.

The protesters, many of them young students, fought police with their fists and water bottles, witnesses said. They smashed police vehicles, even flipping one upside down.

"The government was corrupted, so ordinary people were all protesting," said Yang, a 13-year-old student who left her family store nearby to participate.

The Chinese central government has been widely applauded for quickly and effectively mobilizing national resources for rescue and relief efforts, but the magnitude 7.9 quake and its aftermath have sparked anger toward local governments. In several cities and towns, residents have accused officials of corrupt acts, including taking the best tents for themselves and underreporting the extent of quake casualties so as not to draw scrutiny from Beijing.

Protests and complaints against local officials aren't rare, but what's different is that the grievances are being captured on television or being reported by a press that has traditionally been tightly controlled but has had more freedom in the immediate aftermath of the natural disaster.

As well, parents whose children were killed are protesting the failure of local leaders to provide answers about why so many schools collapsed while structures around them, including government buildings, remained standing. Some believe local officials are trying to cover up shoddy construction.

In Mianzhu, villagers clashed with police Sunday over the government's handling of disaster relief and its response to the collapse of the Fuxin No. 2 Elementary School, where as many as 129 children were buried alive. Earlier that day, dozens of parents marched to complain to higher authorities in Deyang, and, in a scene that has been widely publicized, were met by Mian- zhu's party secretary, Jiang Guohua, who kneeled and begged them to stop.

"None of us were listening to him. We all kept walking," said Chen Xuefen, 32, whose 11-year-old son was killed when the school crumbled. "They ignored us. It has been so many days since that day, but no one came to investigate. . . . I told him [Jiang], 'Now you're kneeling to us, but if you can return my son to me, our entire family will kneel to you for three days and nights.' "

Though some quake survivors have spoken of local officials going beyond their duty to help victims, it is the central government that has won overwhelming praise for its leadership and caring hand during the crisis that has claimed more than 67,000 lives.

"The central government is managing the situation much more skillfully, including its public image," said Minxin Pei, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

On Wednesday, Beijing said it would allocate $28.6 million to help Sichuan deal with swelling quake-spawned lakes that are at risk of overflowing and inundating hundreds of thousands of people downstream.

Jing Zhengfu, 36, a farmer in Mianzhu, put it this way: "The party is good. [President] Hu [Jintao] and [Premier] Wen [Jiabao] are good. But the local-level government is corrupted. . . . It's hard to find any honest officials here."

Such sentiments reflect a general dissatisfaction and mistrust of local government that experts say were bound to manifest themselves or become amplified in the wake of a disaster of this magnitude. Officials of towns, counties and cities are chosen by the local party leadership. Only about 1,000 officials at the provincial level are appointed by Beijing and serve at the will of the central government, Pei said. That makes it very difficult for Beijing to monitor or fire local leaders.

"It shows the existence of the corruption problem and the increasing conflicts between officials and ordinary people," said Hu Xingdou, a professor of economics at Beijing Institute of Technology.

Hu believes the airing of such grievances could lead to reforms that will bring a cleaner, more transparent and competent local government. Last week, a deputy bureau chief of civil affairs in Dujiangyan, a hard-hit resort area northwest of Chengdu, was dismissed by the local government for "inaccurate calculation of statistics" related to the earthquake.

China's chief justice this week pledged that courts would impose severe punishment for quake-related corruption. The central government has been battling graft and other abuse-of-power problems for years, but lacking resources and political reach, Beijing has focused on punishing egregious offenders to send a message to localities.

"I think smart officials sitting in Beijing would be thinking of using this [earthquake] incident to give local officials a good lesson," said Lynette Ong, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto.

But Ong, who has done fieldwork in rural China, doubts significant reforms are ahead in local governance.

Finances remain a major concern in rural China, so while the publicity over school collapses is likely to bring scrutiny and oversight of construction, Ong said, that won't necessarily address problems in healthcare and other social programs. When the nation's attention on the quake diminishes, it remains to be seen how well local officials will deliver aid to help more than 5 million homeless people resettle and pick up their lives.

Nor does Ong see drastic changes in the government allowing protests or more aggressive media coverage of social issues and local leaders. "At the end of the day," she said, "it is social stability that the central government values most."

The May 21 protest in Luojiang, about 50 miles west of the epicenter in Wenchuan, stemmed from complaints that relief supplies -- bottled water, instant noodles and sausages -- had been stored in a children's clothing shop. Some residents say they believed the shop operators had close connections to local officials.

People in the area said police arrived May 21 and sealed the clothing shop and detained at least one person. Later in the day, crowds gathered at a square and began to question authorities about the case. Scuffles broke out and police arrested a number of students, witnesses said.

"People were shouting: 'Release the students! Take out disaster relief goods!' " said Sun Dejian, 25, a restaurant worker who watched the protest.

The protest was covered on local TV, but there's been little coverage since. A foreign reporter asking questions was tailed by a local official, who insisted that he should participate in interviews.

Asked why, he said, "Residents may not have the correct understanding."

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don.lee@latimes.com

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