SCMP Saturday, March 10, 2001

Confront the facts

When a tragedy occurs on the scale of the explosion in the Fanglin village school in Jiangxi province, the world looks on in sympathy and horror. Because of modern communications, there is nowhere so remote that a major catastrophe can pass unnoticed.
This has made it nearly impossible to keep a lid on the news. Truth will out, and generally will emerge regardless of how hard officialdom tries to prevent it. Internet chat rooms and mobile phones have seen to that.
For this reason alone, the central Government should conduct a full inquiry, complete with an open hearing which allows parents and villagers to testify and which the media can cover unhindered. No matter how embarrassing or harrowing the facts, they must be confronted. That is the only way to deal with the anguish of the bereaved and the survivors, and the quickest way to restore credibility to the authorities.
Of the two conflicting explanations in circulation, the official version is treated with great scepticism. Even if a deranged man was involved, it is clear pupils had to make fireworks in the very place where they should have been safest. Appalling as that is, it is hardly surprising. The International Labour Organisation in 1996 reported that 13.3 million mainland youngsters between the ages of 10 to 14 were involved in child labour.
Not all are forced to work. In poor areas, children often help supplement the family income. Jiangxi province in particular is an extremely deprived region, but forcing children into highly dangerous labour is inexcusable. Parents certainly thought so, and there must be an inquiry into why their complaints went unanswered.
By bringing the full circumstances of this calamity into the open, Beijing can send a forceful message across China that these practices will not be tolerated. In such a sprawling nation, it can be hard for the central Government to make its presence felt. But the media can be a powerful ally, helping to ensure that such a terrible event never occurs again.