Cultural Revolution

A gritty documentary records the brave protests of bereaved parents after last year's Chinese earthquake

James Shinn

“I will solve this, I will probe completely,” pleads party secretary Jiang Guohua, on his knees in the middle of the road as outraged parents stream by, photos of their dead children held high. “Probe your mother’s c***”!” snarls an angry mother. Not a customary pose for a communist party apparatchik, nor a typical response of Chinese citizens to their masters – but directors Jon Alpert and Matt O’Neill caught it all on film.

This is one of several gripping scenes in their HBO documentary China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province, to be broadcast in May, about the first of the Sichuan quakes which killed 69,000 people. The Richter grade eight tremor caused thousands of shabbily constructed schools to collapse, burying at least 10,000 children – though no one knows for sure.

This film is going to cause some serious heartburn for HBO fans in Beijing’s Zhongnanhai leadership compound. “You are not authorised as a foreigner to be here,” scowled a Ministry of Public Security officer to Alpert’s team. “If I see you in this village again I’ll arrest you!” The HBO team had been put on notice that the Chinese government did not like the idea of foreigners with cameras nosing around the rubble.

“We demand an explanation!” chant the demonstrators as they march along the country road from rural Fuxin towards the provincial capital Chengdu. “The unsafe building killed our children,” says a crying mother. As the camera pans over the ruins of the Fuxin school building, sheared columns reveal no reinforcing bars inside. Bricks are missing, substituted by flaky concrete. “We call this tofu construction,” says one father bitterly.

What explanation could the hapless Jiang give them? Local party officials in China are squeezed between maintaining order and some sort of minimal popularity, while saddled with Beijing’s “unfunded mandates” – required to provide social services at the local level with no revenue grants from the centre. So they are famously rapacious, collecting random taxes, making sweetheart deals with developers and skimming any contract in their district – not just to line their own pockets, though that happens a lot, but simply to make local revenue equal local expenditure. When they have to build schools on skimpy budgets, the temptation to cut corners on costs – tofu construction – is strong. Ultimately, 7,000 children paid the price.

When HBO documentary supremo Sheila Nevins heard a moving, on-the-ground NPR broadcast from a reporting team that had been in Sichuan province for other reasons, Alpert and O’Neill were dispatched to Chengdu. They got there nine days after the quake. They filmed lots of ruins, “but there was no documentary thread. I thought we were finished, and packed up,” explains Alpert.

But the next day they drove (literally) into the film’s most riveting scene. Several hundred parents were striding along with banners calling for justice and carrying black-shrouded photos of their dead children. “We hopped out of the car and just started filming,” says Alpert.

Their camera follows the demonstrators as they stream right past Jiang on his knees and force their way through a cordon of People’s Armed Police, pushing and punching, brandishing the death photos like talismans. Uniformed and plain-clothes cops ring the demonstrators on both sides, taking photographs and videos, while security officials anxiously stride along trying to figure out how to bring things to a stop. Finally, the demonstrators are coaxed onto buses with the promise of an official, “technical” report on school construction.

Alpert’s camera follows the parents onto the bus and back to their farms and homesteads, with a series of heart-wrenching clips as they talk about their lost children – in most cases, their only child, mandated by China’s strict one-child policy. Many of the scenes are quietly heartbreaking. The film contains no editorialising or voice-overs; the soundtrack is entirely in Chinese (with English subtitles) in Alpert’s trademark cinéma-vérité – a sparse, evocative style that has won him 15 Emmy awards. Their filming came to an abrupt halt when the police closed in on them in a parking garage, bundled them off to a police station and grilled them for eight hours, confiscating what footage they were carrying. Alpert had wisely shipped out the critical demonstration footage and most of his parent interviews the day before.

This crackdown was the opening shot in Beijing’s comprehensive media blackout on the Sichuan school collapse scandal. The Ministry of Public Security later used police videos to identify and track down the demonstrators one by one at home – especially the “ringleaders” – to intimidate or bribe them into public silence. Several parents who obtained blueprints of collapsed schools and compared them to the actual ruins, thereby proving shoddy construction methods, were later arrested on grounds of “possessing state secrets”.

Party leaders are nervous as time ticks down to the anniversary of the quake – civil disorder is their first and foremost worry. Hu Jintao’s newly-anointed successor Jia Qingling discussed the quake at length in his speech to the China People’s Conference in Beijing in March (the 11th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference – CPPCC) in classic party-speak: “The CPPCC resolutely carried out all policy decisions of the Central Committee concerning earthquake relief, and acted promptly to adjust its work agenda to make participation in earthquake relief efforts its most important and pressing task,” carefully avoiding any mention of collapsed schools or dead children.

Persistent reporters buttonholed Wei Hong, the executive vice-governor of Sichuan, outside the CPPCC about the long-expected “official investigation”. His response? “The scale of the earthquake was very great and the intensity was very strong, so that was the most important cause of the damage of the school buildings and other facilities. We need to conduct a series of calculations and checks, especially of the locations and basic information of those missing. Before the exact final death toll has been confirmed, it is very hard to determine the correct number of schoolchildren who died.”

A skilful non-answer, though it is interesting that Wei said anything at all – and said so to reporters at the CPPCC. Will the communist party ever become truly accountable to China’s people, even for disasters like the Sichuan schools scandal? Perhaps, as Chou En-lai famously replied when asked for his assessment of the 1789 French Revolution, “It’s too early to tell.” For the parents of Fuxin, the answer is clearly, “Not yet.”

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