BEIJING — A decade after a massive earthquake devastated parts of China’s Sichuan province, an outspoken critic of the government’s response is languishing in jail, his health deteriorating.
The plight of the longtime human rights advocate underscores the communist government’s determination to silence all dissenters, including parents who lost their children when shoddily built schools collapsed in the 2008 quake, which happened 10 years ago Saturday.
Sichuan native Huang Qi, 55, was imprisoned for three years after meeting with a group of those parents. Jailed again in November 2016 on charges of leaking state secrets, he has yet to receive a trial date.
“Huang Qi is innocent,” his mother, Pu Wenqing, told The Associated Press by phone from Sichuan. “I’m really worried my son will die in prison.”
The 7.9 magnitude quake that struck the mountainous western portion of Sichuan on May 12, 2008, killed nearly 90,000 people, including thousands of students crushed when their poorly constructed classrooms collapsed on top of them. Despite overwhelming evidence of poor design and construction, the government rejected demands for a thorough investigation and punishment of those responsible.
Huang, along with others such as outspoken artist Ai Weiwei, sought to draw attention to what many considered a man-made disaster, drawing swift retribution from the communist authorities who brook no criticism or challenge to their authority.
Huang’s history of activism may have made him a special target. Beginning in 1998, he established the 64 Tianwang Human Rights Center and its accompanying website to chronicle the stories of those suffering abuses at the hands of local authorities. In 2003, he received his first prison sentence; five years on the loosely defined charge of “incitement to subvert state power.”
Huang’s current ailments include severely limited kidney function, heart disease, accumulation of fluid in the brain and severe weight loss, according to his mother and colleagues. In July 2017, he told his lawyer he was being forced to stand from four to six hours per day during questioning by rotating shifts of interrogators and had also been beaten in an apparent attempt to obtain a confession.
“I think the authorities have a plan,” colleague Pu Fei told the AP. “They won’t let him leave prison alive.” Calls to the detention centre in the city of Mianyang rang unanswered.
Pu drew a comparison to the case of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died of liver cancer last year while serving a life sentence for subversion. Beijing appears to have been emboldened by the lack of a forceful response from the international community, he said.
A decade on, the vast quake zone in the Himalayan foothills has been partly rebuilt, although scores of buildings damaged in the quake remain as they were, furniture, marriage photos and even shoes frozen in time. Some shattered buildings have been turned into memorials, others, tourist attractions.
Several towns around the epicenter have been rebuilt elsewhere, filled with new housing, schools and businesses built to what the authorities say are highly robust standards for quake resistance.
That’s of little consolation, however, to many of the parents of students who were killed, including Chen Qiying, 43, who lost her 10-year-old son, Chen Yida, then a fourth-grader at Fuxin Elementary School. Her grief is mixed with guilt that she and her husband were hundreds of kilometres (miles) away when disaster struck.
Yida’s classroom was on the first floor. The building collapsed within seconds, leaving the students with no chance of getting out.
Like many in the poor, mountainous region, Chen and her husband had been working in more economically vibrant eastern China.
Hearing news of the quake at the textile plant where they worked in Zhejiang province, Chen said her husband wept with worry. The couple bought train tickets home since no flights were available, returning on May 14, six days after the quake, to bury their only son.
No compensation was forthcoming from the government, which promised an investigation into the school collapse but never produced any results, Chen said.
Attempts to reach out to officials were ignored or obstructed, she said. Authorities intercepted organized attempts by groups of parents to visit higher authorities in Beijing, preventing them from even leaving Sichuan, Chen said.
“A single person can go, but it is impossible for several people to go together and the power of an individual is limited.”
Chen said parents were still discussing whether to mark the date on Saturday with some sort of ceremony. Regardless: “It’s the 10-year anniversary. We all feel deep grief.”
Chen and her husband have since had another son, of whom they are highly protective and have pledged never to leave behind.
“On one hand, we are doubtful about the government because they haven’t taken any responsibility for construction quality problems. They didn’t give our child an explanation,” Chen said.
“On the other hand, we regret a lot that and feel we shouldn’t have been migrant workers back then. So now we are not willing to be migrant workers because we learned a lesson. We feel very guilty.”
Guo Ling, 13, had been another student at Fuxin, a sixth grader and class president who was set to graduate 20 days before the quake. Her father recalls how he’d been helping his brother in his barley field when the ground suddenly heaved up around them.
“It was about five minutes … I ran to the school. There was no one. The school buildings had collapsed like a rumpled blanket,” said Guo, who preferred that only his surname be used.
As with Chen Ling’s parents, Guo said he was given no compensation from the government and no one took responsibility for the school’s construction defects.
“The judge rejected the indictment, saying if we were having difficulties, turn to the government,” said Guo. “But when we went to the government, they sent special police to arrest people,” he said.
Although his home was also destroyed, Guo said he did end up obtaining about 90,000 yuan ($14,000) in compensation from three private foundations such up to help quake victims.
A little over a year later, Guo and his wife had a son, who is now entering third grade. To mark the quake anniversary, Guo said he plans to burn paper money in memory of his deceased daughter in a traditional Chinese act of mourning and remembrance.
“If we go to the government, the government will arrest us. Honestly, the government didn’t reach out to us…..it is purely to suppress us,” Guo said.
Associated Press researcher Shanshan Wang contributed to this story.
Christopher Bodeen, The Associated Press