There is so much heartbreak across China's earthquake-devastated Sichuan province, where by some estimates 10,000 children perished in a terrifying instant May 12 when many school buildings pancaked into rubble. Even from a continent away, the pain of their parents is palpable. To lose a child in any circumstance is heartbreaking; to lose an only child in a nation that enforces a strict one-child family policy would seem to be the worst thing imaginable.
Yet it gets worse. Many of those children, it now appears, might have survived if not for the substandard school construction. Most government buildings, although damaged, remained standing. So, too, did many of the schools that serve the elite, such as offspring of Communist Party members. There is evidence that the collapsed schools were built with low-grade concrete and inadequate steel reinforcements to save money and, most likely, to line the officials' pockets. There is even a phrase for such faulty construction: tofu buildings, which look solid but are as crumbly as soybean curd. It's a description that critics say applies to some of the buildings for this year's Beijing Olympics.
The Chinese live with endemic corruption. Senior officials are rarely held accountable, and ordinary Chinese who protest do so at considerable peril and rarely with much effect. But this is a mass tragedy that Chinese feel far beyond Sichuan province. A child represents not only the continuation of the family but also a social safety net, eventually supporting and caring for elderly parents. Grief is turning into anger. China's leaders, facing troubling questions, are falling back on old habits. The state-run media censors coverage of the shoddy schools issue, and the police forcibly disperse protesting parents. Officials are attempting to assuage parents' anger by publicizing that the one-child rule provides an exemption for parents whose child is killed. But it's doubtful that the leaders will provide for real accountability, which after all could send even bigger aftershocks through the country.