Chinese security on alert for quake zone unrest

Hundreds of grieving parents blocked the road into an earthquake-flattened town as Chinese police sought to quell a rising wave of public anger over schools that collapsed and killed thousands of children.

Volunteers were detained, schools were cordoned off, and reporters were barred from destroyed classrooms in at least two other towns yesterday, in another sign of the government’s resolve in controlling the post-quake message.

The security measures underscore how much the public fury over the deaths of so many children is unnerving Chinese authorities. Their attempts to rein it in contrast sharply with the relative openness Beijing displayed at the start of the disaster.

Across the quake zone, tempers flared among parents as they marked the one-month anniversary of the May 12 quake.

“We’re dispirited. Our children have been dead for a month,” said Wang Ping, whose 16-year-old daughter was killed when Beichuan Middle School cratered.

“I’m 40. All our hopes were in our children. Now they’re dead. Our future is dead too.”

About five miles south of quake-flattened Beichuan, more than 200 parents blocked the valley’s sole road, angry that a memorial plaque to dead students had been smashed overnight – and that local officials did not seem to care.

The plaque, a shiny polished black stone with gold letters had been erected on a hillside near the school in a small ceremony on Monday.

Yesterday it lay in pieces, and parents were demanding to know why authorities were not investigating the matter and why the school had crumbled so easily.

“We just want answers from our local leaders,” Fan Xiaorong, whose 18-year-old daughter died, said as tears welled up in her eyes.

Earlier in the day, most had stood before the ruins of the school, placing sticks of incense, fruit and flowers on the edge of a sea of concrete rubble. Some burned clothes and shoes of dead students, a traditional expression of mourning.

In the end, Beichuan county officials wrote down the concerns of demonstrators and said they would consider them. Most of the crowd dispersed peacefully after dark.

On Wednesday, dozens of armed police rounded up more than 20 volunteers from Beichuan Middle School who had been planning a memorial service for yesterday, said Chen Yan, 36, a volunteer from Chengdu. He said the volunteers were taken to a police station in Wenchang town.

But officials at the Wenchang police branch and the Zitong County public security bureau denied that any volunteers had been detained by police.

One month after the magnitude-7.9 quake killed nearly 70,000 in central China, Beijing is trying to switch the emphasis from the destruction to the rebuilding effort, focusing on tales of heroism in the rescue efforts.

In the first days after the quake, China’s typically harsh media restrictions were relaxed, allowing both domestic and foreign reporters unusual freedom in covering the disaster. But in recent weeks, the government has begun clamping down on press liberties as hard questions have continued about corruption and shoddy construction of schools.

Some 7,000 classrooms altogether collapsed in the quake, many in areas where no other buildings were badly affected. Parents and some engineers who surveyed the wreckage pointed to poor design, a lack of steel reinforcement bars in the concrete and the use of other substandard building materials.

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