SCMP Thursday, March 15, 2001

Scapegoat or murderer?


Families in a settlement on the outskirts of Fanglin Village, the scene of Jiangxi province's tragic elementary school explosion that killed at least 37 children, laid four small wooden coffins on the open ground before covering them with the area's infertile, orange clay soil. Set just below the crest of a hill, the graves command a tranquil view of the village and rice paddies below, which could be glimpsed intermittently through the mist.
"The fung shui is very good here," said Wang Wenming, whose nephew, 11-year-old Wang Zhiguo - lies buried beneath one of the small mounds. As Mr Wang spoke late last week, a steady rain darkened the soil to a blood-red hue and ate away at the simple bamboo-and-paper memorials marking the graves, the ink of their parents' inscriptions running and blurring. It will probably only be a matter of weeks before the rains and mist in this remote, mountainous area have completely eroded the memorials, leaving just four unmarked mounds in the earth, and at least another 33 elsewhere in the village.
It is hard to imagine a greater contrast than that between the tranquility of these four graves and the intense controversy that now surrounds the March 6 explosion in the Fanglin school and the Chinese Government's handling of its aftermath.
In an extraordinary development on Monday night, China Central Television's main news broadcast - which Fanglin's villagers watch every night in the hope that their side of story will be told - carried a strident denunciation of the foreign media by Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhu Bangzao, who accused overseas journalists of "writing irresponsibly even before the investigation into the [Fanglin school tragedy] has been completed".
"Some foreign media," Mr Zhu said, "have published untrue reports, embellished the truth, distorted the facts and [used the incident] to attack China. [Their reporting] violates journalistic ethics, is preposterous and is incorrect."
In point of fact, foreign journalists have done no such thing. They have merely reported first the villagers' claims that the school doubled as a child-labour fireworks sweatshop, and second the refusal of victims' families to accept the Government's explanation that a mentally disturbed suicide bomber - identified as 32-year-old Li Chuicai - was solely responsible for the tragedy. On Tuesday, newspapers in Nanchang, Jiangxi's capital, published for the first time pictures of Li and a suicide note allegedly written by him. But one copy of the note seen by the Post is curiously dated July 12, 2000 - nearly eight months prior to the explosion.
Zhu Bangzao did not criticise Premier Zhu Rongji for leaping to conclusions when, speaking 48 hours after the tragedy, he publicly endorsed the "mad bomber" theory.
Indeed, the Government's handling of the tragedy has been so strident that one Nanchang salesman said, in all seriousness, that he initially wondered whether the lone bomber was a member of the Falun Gong sect.
This is not to say that the Government's explanation should be dismissed out of hand. But its refusal to let journalists visit the school - the remnants of which villagers say has already been plowed under to hide the truth - makes it impossible to confirm the official version of events. Reporters, be they Chinese or foreign, cannot be expected to believe what they cannot see.
It is also impossible to reconcile the Government's explanation with the news - confirmed by police deployed in Fanglin as they detained a South China Morning Post reporter before he could reach the school - that the village party secretary and school principal had been arrested and so were unavailable for comment.
If it is true that a lone bomber was indeed responsible and that the school never functioned as a fireworks factory, then there can be no justification for these arrests.
The controversy about who or what triggered the explosion is, unfortunately, being used to obscure a central issue: whether or not the school principal and teachers, conspiring with the village party secretary, ordered students to assemble fireworks.
The evidence that the school did, in fact, double as a child-labour fireworks factory is overwhelming. Even Zhu Rongji admitted that "I also suspected at the beginning that the primary school was trying to make extra profit by storing materials [to make fireworks]", before concluding that "now we have found out this is absolutely not the case. The materials were put in later [by a bomber]. The suspect died after he set off the explosion."
Dozens of parents have told foreign media that their children were forced to assemble fireworks at the school. "For the past several years, the [Fanglin Village] primary school has required pupils to make fireworks. We . . . said at a meeting that we sent our children to school not to make fireworks but to study," said Wang Lifu, father of deceased student Wang Tingbo, in a written statement given to the Post and published earlier this week. He wrote his statement on the inside cover of two school notebooks once used by his dead child.
"Fireworks manufacturing in the school stopped for a while after parents protested. But it began again before long. Now the accident has occurred," Mr Wang added.
Children who attended the school and survived the blast have confirmed their parents' account. The fact that home assembly of fireworks is rife in impoverished Wanzai county, the self-declared "fireworks capital of China" in which Fanglin is situated, also lends credence to the villagers' claims.
Earlier this week, the Post reported that owing to the difficult economic circumstances of so many families, the booming cottage industry is continuing in Fanglin, even in some households that lost children in the tragedy.
It is perhaps also telling that at an emergency, province-wide "School Safety Work Meeting" - convened by Jiangxi officials last Friday - it was announced that emergency teams would be dispatched to, among other things, confirm that schools in Jiangxi were not allowing any "productive labour [detrimental to] the safety of students and teachers".
It is, of course, humiliating for the Chinese Government that this tragedy should have happened just one day after the opening of the National People's Congress (NPC) annual session in Beijing, and just weeks after China put on its best face for members of the International Olympic Committee who will decide if Beijing deserves to host the 2008 Summer Games.
But humiliating or not, there is no excuse for the Government's defensive handling of the tragedy, which has only placed more strain on families already struggling to deal with a terrible burden.
Their sadness is impossible to communicate.
"I now know how painful it is for parents when their children die," said Wang Lifu, who opted to give the Post a written statement in part because in his exhausted emotional state it was difficult for him to talk.
Last Saturday, a gaggle of villagers excitedly escorted a Post reporter from the bedside of one stricken mother to another, crowding each room and interjecting comments. One mother had not eaten in five days and sat staring blankly at the wall in front of her; another mother lay down with a makeshift intravenous drip attached to the bedside above her.
For the mothers, the chaotic scene was traumatic. Under the circumstances, the only thing that could be done was to ask a few polite questions, leave them in peace, and find a relative who spoke a reasonable standard of Putonghua to calmly give the family's version of events.
Nanchang newspapers have made much of the fact that as soon as they heard of the tragedy, Jiangxi Governor Shu Shengyou and other local officials flew from the NPC meeting in Beijing to the provincial capital. From Nanchang their official cars rushed them to Fanglin in the dead of a rainy night along steadily worsening roads. They reached the scene of the explosion less than 18 hours after it occurred, in the early hours of Wednesday morning. Reporters too flew to Nanchang and hired cars to make the more than four-hour journey to Tanbu township, from where the best option was to switch over to motorcycle taxis for another hour-long ride over rutted mud paths.
But as difficult as the journey was for politicians and reporters, theirs do not even begin to compare with the journeys made by two of the bereaved fathers. To escape the poverty of their hometown and to provide a better future for their families, Wang Rengen and Luo Tangshou work as migrant labourers in Dongguan and Hunan respectively. They could only afford to travel home by public transportation, burdened with the inexplicable news that their children had died in an explosion at their school, which more than one villager has noted "should have been the safest place in the village". They did not arrive home until Thursday, two days after the tragedy.
Moreover, it was not until Saturday, the same day that his 11-year-old daughter Wang Min was buried, that Wang Rengen learned from doctors that another of his children, who was badly injured in the explosion, was at last in a stable condition. He wanted to visit his recovering child in hospital that day, but could not because rain had turned the dirt road leading to the village into an impassable clay paste.
Fanglin's poverty and isolation, which the Government's economic reform policies have failed to end, would make it difficult for any parent to deal with the grief that comes with the loss of a child.
Add to this the anger that has arisen from the Government's refusal to acknowledge that Fanglin's children were forced to assemble fireworks in their own school, and at least to consider that this might have caused the explosion rather than simply accepting the "mad bomber" explanation offered by local officials - and their burden becomes impossible.
"I'm not afraid of [the police]," the father of one dead child responded when asked if it was wise for him to escort a Post reporter from his child's grave to the school. "They should be afraid of me. The Government depends on our support."
Five minutes later, the Post reporter was in the back seat of a police van, sandwiched between two policemen. The father could only scream curses at the back of the van as it drove out of the village.
If the aggrieved father and other parents are ever to find peace in the serene settings where their children are buried, the central Government will have to investigate and answer their allegations. Premier Zhu is renowned for his integrity and intolerance of local-government smoke-screens. Today, he is certain to face further tough questioning about the Fanglin school tragedy at the annual press conference to mark the end of the NPC session, and he owes it to the parents of the dead children to give a fuller explanation than has been forthcoming from the Government so far.
Tom Mitchell ( ) is the Post's Guangzhou correspondent.