By David Bandurski — It’s official. China’s central government will hold local officials accountable for failing to ensure that school buildings are safe. The catch? The government’s resolve applies only to hypothetical future disasters. And this so-called “school safety project” must offer little consolation to parents of the 5,335 students who (according to official numbers) died in last year’s Wenchuan earthquake.
According to the official Xinhua News Agency, China’s Ministry of Education announced yesterday that China will launch a “secondary and primary school safety project” (年时间实施中小学校舍安全工程) over the next three years, which will include an “accountability system” for construction quality and management of funds. [An English version of the official release is HERE.]
The Xinhua release makes no mention at all of the collapse of shoddily constructed schools in last year’s Wenchuan earthquake. This conspicuous absence suggests the policy is as much an effort to divert attention from the nagging question of official responsibility for student deaths last year as it is an effort to address the problem of shoddy school construction nationwide to ensure the future safety of students.
The head of China’s National Primary and Secondary School Safety Project Working Group, an office set up within the Ministry of Education, told Xinhua that the 2009-2011 work plan states explicitly that “in areas where safety accidents occur resulting in injury or loss of life stemming from the collapse of dangerous school buildings or other failures of preparedness, principal leaders in the local government will be held responsible in accordance with the law.”
China’s central government has reportedly allocated eight billion yuan, or roughly 1.17 billion US dollars, for the three-year school safety program.
Web users responding on the popular platform QQ.com immediately took the Xinhua report to task.
“So many students died in last year’s quake and no-one has sought responsibility for that. We have heard so many promises, but we can’t cash in on any of them. Does anyone at all still believe in these responsibility systems?” asked one user from Nanjing.
“Can the Ministry of Education control local governments?” asked a user from Tianjin.
“Ha, ha, ha! China’s Ministry of Education. Why don’t you guys go take care of the problem of teachers’ wages in the countryside? Local governments are charging bulls. Do you think they’re really going to pay attention to the Ministry of Education?” chided a user from Yuncheng City (运城市).
“We can say with certainty that this earthquake disaster was of our own making,” one user wrote in by mobile phone. “Why don’t you guys go to the earthquake zone and see for yourselves? There are no steel reinforcements whatsoever in the floor slabs of these schools. The structures just came down in piles with the first tremors.”
A user from Shenzhen wrote: “Why did so many schools collapse in the May 12 earthquake, but we didn’t see government office buildings collapsing? At the time of the quake even the Premier [Wen Jiabao] said we needed to get to the bottom of this. So why is it that now they don’t dare look into it?”
[Posted by David Bandurski, May 18, 2009, 12:46pm HK]