China Marks 1st Anniversary Of Sichuan Quake

06/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

BEICHUAN, China — China marked the first anniversary of a massive earthquake on Tuesday in a somber, nationally televised ceremony filled with flowers and speeches, as the normally distant Chinese leadership provided an unusually cathartic public moment.

The 30-minute memorial service in front of a destroyed school in the Sichuan province town of Yingxiu followed a minute of silence that began at 2:28 p.m. (0628 GMT), the moment the magnitude-7.9 temblor shook China _ and some countries beyond _ on May 12, 2008.

Villages were toppled or buried and landslides raked mountains as large portions of Sichuan _ where the quake was centered _ and two neighboring provinces were wrecked. Nearly 90,000 people were killed or never found, and 5 million were made homeless in the deadliest earthquake to hit in decades.

"The great task of earthquake rescue and recovery reminds us again that unity is strength, that victory can only be gained through struggle," President Hu Jintao said, before leading military and civilian leaders, diplomats, students and emergency services workers in laying white and yellow chrysanthemums _ traditional flowers of mourning _ before a stone memorial. A trumpet played a plaintive tune in the background as officials bowed their heads in respect.

"Survivors in the quake zone are marching toward a new life," Hu said. "The party, the army and the people of all nations should be closely united to bravely overcome all the difficulties and the risk on the road ahead."

The solemn event was broadcast live on national television, underscoring the disaster's searing effect on the national consciousness. The scope and pomp of the ceremony _ with Sichuan's verdant mountains as a backdrop _ is usually reserved for official Communist Party events in Beijing.

The destruction triggered an outpouring of grief around China and united the country in a massive rescue effort boosted by volunteers, private donations and international aid. But it also brought to the fore a politically incendiary issue: why so many schools sank to the ground while buildings around them were barely affected.

Parents of dead students have been at the forefront of dissent with accusations of corruption and mismanagement that they say led to shoddy construction.

"Our son is dead. I don't feel like living anymore, so I am not afraid; I want to speak up," said Fu Guiqun, a 37-year-old mother in the valley town of Beichuan, which was so shattered by the quake it has been relocated.

"My son died a terrible death. Why did the school have to collapse? The buildings are so poorly constructed!" said Fu.

Her husband, Wu Zhenwei, added: "Some of the pig pens that I built 10 or 20 years ago are stronger."

The parents were among dozens of mourners who gathered Tuesday at the destroyed Beichuan Middle School, where about 1,000 students and faculty were killed.

They offered flowers and burned candles and sticks of incense amid the smoke and crackle of exploding firecrackers. Many brought pictures of their dead children and pasted notes to a metal fence surrounding the rubble, including one reading "peace to the dead, strength to the living." The tears flowed freely.

Parents gave voice both to their bereavement and continuing resentment over the government's treatment of them. Many of those who have tried to sue or petition local and central authorities have been detained or warned against speaking out.

Activists and lawyers who have tried to help them have met the same fate, and reporters visiting the area have been detained, harassed and physically threatened.

"They told us not to create trouble, so we have given up," Wu said.

Chen Guanghui, whose 17-year-old son was crushed when the Beichuan Middle School collapsed, said that, like many parents of dead students, he was still waiting for a proper response to allegations that schools were inherently unsafe as a result of shoddy construction enabled by corruption and weak oversight.

"Of course I'm angry. The school was badly built. Nothing else around here collapsed," said Chen, 47, as he burned paper money with his wife as an offering to their son.

More than a dozen police officers kept watch over the increasingly agitated parents, who shouted at them when a plainclothes officer tried to stop an Associated Press reporter from filming the scene.

So volatile is the issue that until last week, the government had refused to release an official tally of students who died, saying the task was complicated and time-consuming. That figure, released in an apparent response to public pressure, showed 5,335 students were killed in the quake_ although parents and activists say the number is too low.

So far, no one has been punished or held responsible for the schools' collapse, and officials insist that they have not found evidence so far of shoddy construction _ a claim questioned by experts and parents alike.