The Interview With The Kneeling Party Secretary
(New York Times) Parents’ Grief Turns to Rage at Chinese Officials. Andrew Jacobs. May 28, 2008.
Sharp confrontations between protesters and officials began over the weekend in several towns in northern Sichuan. Hundreds of parents whose children died at the Fuxin No. 2 Primary School in the city of Mianzhu staged an impromptu rally on Saturday. They surrounded an official who tried to assure them that their complaints were being taken seriously, screaming and yelling in her face until she fainted.
The next day, the Communist Party’s top official in Mianzhu came out to talk with the parents and to try to stop them from marching to Chengdu, the provincial capital, where they sought to prevail on higher-level authorities to investigate. The local party boss, Jiang Guohua, dropped to his knees and pleaded with them to abandon the protest, but the parents shouted in his face and continued their march.
Later, as the crowd surged into the hundreds, some parents clashed with the police, leaving several bleeding and trembling with emotion.
The protests threaten to undermine the government’s attempts to promote its response to the quake as effective and to highlight heroic rescue efforts by the People’s Liberation Army, which has dispatched 150,000 soldiers to the region. Censors have blocked detailed reporting of the schools controversy by the state-run media, but a photo of Mr. Jiang kneeling before protesters has become a sensation on some Web forums, bringing national attention to the incident.
(Los Angeles Times) In China, protests flare over quake aid. Don Lee. May 29, 2008.
Protests and complaints against local officials aren't rare, but what's different is that the grievances are being captured on television or being reported by a press that has traditionally been tightly controlled but has had more freedom in the immediate aftermath of the natural disaster.
As well, parents whose children were killed are protesting the failure of local leaders to provide answers about why so many schools collapsed while structures around them, including government buildings, remained standing. Some believe local officials are trying to cover up shoddy construction.
In Mianzhu, villagers clashed with police Sunday over the government's handling of disaster relief and its response to the collapse of the Fuxin No. 2 Elementary School, where as many as 129 children were buried alive. Earlier that day, dozens of parents marched to complain to higher authorities in Deyang, and, in a scene that has been widely publicized, were met by Mian- zhu's party secretary, Jiang Guohua, who kneeled and begged them to stop.
"None of us were listening to him. We all kept walking," said Chen Xuefen, 32, whose 11-year-old son was killed when the school crumbled. "They ignored us. It has been so many days since that day, but no one came to investigate. . . . I told him [Jiang], 'Now you're kneeling to us, but if you can return my son to me, our entire family will kneel to you for three days and nights.' "
(Modern Express Daily, Wenxue City) The Mianzhu Party Secretary Explains Why He Knelt Down To The Parents Of Student Earthquake Victims. June 8, 2008.
Q. Secretary Jiang, how much damage did Mianzhu city sustain during the earthquake? How severe was it?
A: There are twenty-one towns in Mianzhu city. As of 17:00 on June 2, there are 11,104 deaths, 37,000 plus injuries including 5,249 serious injuries and 276 missing persons in Mianzhu city. The numbers will change as time goes by. Also, the preliminary direct economic loss is 136.7 billion RMB. It is up to the superiors to determine whether Mianzhu is a major disaster zone. What we need to do right now is to make sure that we gather accurate data.
Q: According to the data, Mianzhu accounted for a high proportion of the deaths in the Wenchuan earthquake. Does this have anything to do with the organizational command structure in the rescue work?
A: None of the Mianzhu people were psychologically prepared for this strong earthquake. When the earthquake struck, I was a victim. As of May 1st, the afternoon work shift begins at 3pm. I had just finished a nap and I was about to get out of bed. Suddenly, the bed began to shake violently, and the building too. Cracks appeared in the wall. The contents of the room were tossed about. I wrapped a towel around my body and dashed downstairs from the fourth floor. Communications was interrupted, so I only know what I can personally observe. I heard that buildings had collapsed and people were killed. Later, someone found a camouflage uniform for me to wear. I ran down to the City Party Building. I called a secretary and told him to proceed immediately to Deyang city (note: Mianzhu is a city under Deyang city in the government structure) to tell them that there has been a major earthquake in Mianyang with casualties. Very quickly, the city leaders formed a rescue command center right in the courtyarnd.
Q: I heard that you have a detailed record of your work and itinerary. Why did you do that?
A: I usually have a daily schedule, but this one is more detailed. After the earthquake happened, I worked as hard as I could to supervise the rescue. But people condemned me because they did not see me. They asked me why I did not go out to rescue the injured and the trapped. This woke me up. From the moment that the rescue began, I made a record of which orders were issued at which minute which hour, which meetings were held and where I went.
This work schedule/itinerary may be opened to the public. It will be part of history. In less than 20 minutes after the earthquake hit, Mianzhu city put its emergency plan in motion and established a rescue command center. Ten minutes later, police and fire department teams were dispatched to the Bank of China building, the Wudu Primary School, the Fuxin Number Two Elementary School and the Jiadeli Supermarket to rescue people. At 3:15, I went through the public security network to ask my superiors for soldiers, doctors and medical supplies. Five minutes later, the command center moved into the courtyard of the city government building. The Chengdu Air Force Eleventh Squadron received a request for assistance from the command center, and dispatched 100 soldiers at 4:20pm to the designated rescue areas.
Q: Many disaster victims lived in tents because their homes were destroyed. Your dormitory is uninhabitable. Where are you staying now?
A: During the initial stages of the rescue, I did not sleep. Besides, I couldn't sleep. Three or four days afterwards, I could not take it anymore. So I took a nap on my desk. There aren't enough tents for the disaster victims. I do not have a tent of my own. Over the past few days, I either sleep in the office couch or in the car.
Q: What is the toughest problem for you right now?
A: The twenty-one towns of Mianzhu suffered varying degrees of damage. For example, if you consider the damage to buildings, the various towns and departments now estimate that 117,000 or so buildings were damaged across all of Mianzhu, of which 70,000 have completely collapsed. How many of these other damaged buildings can be used again if reinforced? How many of these have to be demolished and rebuilt? These will have to be assessed seriously and not just guessed roughly. It will be hard for me to figure all this out in one month's time. If this number is not figured out, then it will affect the progress of the reconstruction as well as the quality. In the beginning, some people accused me of covering up about the scope of the disaster. This whole thing is not just about the destruction of Mianzhu, because the place has to be rebuilt. Don't you think that I need to find out first about what has really happened here?
Q. What is the financial capability of Mianzhu city to cope with the work?
A: Last year, the total revenue for Mianzhu city was 770 million RMB. After accounting for the schools, hospitals, clinics and other normal government departments, there is only about 100 million or so RMB in discretionary expenditure. For the schools, those that cannot be used now must be rebuilt. There are also needs for healthcare, culture, public spaces, roads, bridges, water, electricity and other facilities. If we don't know what the total needs are, we cannot make policy decisions, and our superiors cannot make policy decisions either.
Q: The work related to the schools and the parents of the student casualties must also be a tough problem for you?
A: Yes. On May 18, the Fuxin Number Two Primary School parents went out into the streets and also established a mourning hall at the site. I said that I could understand that and I asked the Department of Education deputy director to take time away from the rescue command center to talk to them. On May 25, the parents gathered together in the city to petition. I thought that the event was heading towards being out of control. I used to be a public security bureau director and I know that this is dangerous. You think about it. Many students have died, and the parents are emotionally excited. The streets are filled with disaster victims living in tents. If someone starts a riot, it will go out of control with unimaginable consequences. I said, "No, I'll have to solve this problem."
Q: Why did you kneel down in front of the parents?
A: I made a mistake in my initial judgment. In the past, people seek out the leaders when they have a problem. Once the leader shows up, the matter calms down in deference to the party secretary or mayor. But what happened that day deviated from custom. The parents were bounded together by the bitterness and sorrow of losing their children. Overnight they refused to recognize me. Wufu is not the heaviest hit town in the earthquake. But the classroom building of the Fuxin Number Two Primary School collapsed with 129 schoolchildren dead. The parents thought that the classroom building had collapsed as the result of a natural disaster as well as human faults. I promised to make a thorough investigation of the building, but I needed time. The parents did not think so. I was worried. I knelt down to express a certain degree of sincerity, not to put on a show. I don't remember how many times I knelt down. Afterwards, someone said that I knelt four times. I have never thought about kneeling down in the past over any issue. But in the face of this catastrophe, I can put aside all personal concerns and misgivings.
Q: You promised the parents that you will investigate the quality issue about the collapsed classroom building. Has that begun yet?
A: After the earthquake, we identified eight different points of investigation. All these are schools that had serious collapsed buildings, massive casualties and civilian doubts. This was not just about the Fuxin Number Two Primary School alone. The Fuxin Number Two Primary School was the first one to be investigated. So far, we have investigated six schools in Mianzhu city. We asked the Deyang City Party Committee to find provincial level and other city architectural experts to investigate and decide. None of the local Mianzhu city experts are participating. In addition, the State Council and the provincial government will be organizing higher-level experts to analyze the deeper structural reasons behind these school building collapses. If these experts determined that certain buildings were dangerous or contained problems, we will follow the relevant state regulations to seek accountability and make compensation.
Q: After the earthquake, there was a certain period of time during which people did not realize how severe the damage in Mianzhu was. What is the reason?
A: Some people said that I covered up the situation of the disaster. That is not true. On the first three days, we did everything to rescue people. Many disaster victims showed up. Some people with satellite telephones found out the situation in the mountainous areas was dire, with landslides, collapsed houses and injured people. Many people were buried. But it was not possible to verify the reports because communication had broken down. Radio and television were not working for one week. We could not express our voices and that created some misunderstanding.
Several minutes after the earthquake, I immediately sent someone to travel by car to Deyang city. Less than 10 minutes later, I arranged for a city party deputy secretary to go to Deyang to get help. I told him repeatedly: "You must see Deyang City Party Secretary Fang Xiaofang in person. You tell him that there has been a major incident with many deaths." More than one hour later, the two people sent to Deyang returned and told me that Secretary Fang was making arrangements. At around 5pm, the two Deyang city leaders arrived in Mianzhu. At 10pm that evening, deputy provincial governor Li Chengyou arrived. On the morning of May 13, Premier Wen Jiabao arrived. You tell me. If I had been covering up the situation and told them that the situation in Mianzhu was not serious, would these leaders pay so much attention by coming here in the midst of the crisis?
Q. The people trust the government and they want their leaders to appear before them. At a time when all eyes are focused on you, do you find it hard?
A: (Sigh) Yes. I know a Qingping town resident. After the earthquake, I went down to inspect how the disaster victims were being settled into tent cities. He said, "Secretary Jiang, how come you only show up now?" I felt bad. When such a big disaster occurs, everybody wanted to see that their relatives are being rescued immediately.
Q. At the present, what are the issues involved in relocating the disaster zone residents? What measures is Mianzhu city taking? There are so many things related to the clearance and reconstruction work. Which are the major points in your consideration?
A: The four post-disaster stages for Mianzhu are rescuing the victims, settling them down, arrange for transitional housing and rebuilding their homes. The first stage of rescue work is over. Settling them down means firstly that they must be guaranteed tents. Presently, we still don't have enough tents. Secondly, we must provide compensation. Presently, we are issuing compensation based upon the standard of 5,000 RMB per victim. Concerning the three types of people (such as children, senior citizens or handicapped people) who are left behind with no means of support, we are giving them 600 RMB per month to meet their basic needs.
Almost 500,000 people have been left homeless in Mianzhu city. They have lost their homes and they are living in open space. The pressure on us is not less than during the rescue phase. In Jiangsu and Hunan, they are building transitional housing for Mianzhu. These are big projects. Originally, we estimated that they can be completed in one month's time. But this will hard to accomplish. It will take at least two months' time. It is not enough to have the frames of the transitional housing. They need to have water and electricity. The supply of electric cables and water pipes is tight. It is hard to obtain many of the supplies.
When I think about these things, I get very nervous. But this kind of work cannot be hurried. Right now, I need to get a clear estimate of the total losses for the city. Once I have the total amount, I can develop the plan. The reconstruction plan must respect science in terms of determining which are the best steps, what to build first, what to build next, where to build them and what the standards are. At present, Mianzhu city has a reconstruction leadership group and we have asked the China Research Institute of Urban Planning to draw up reconstruction plans. The reconstruction will not be completed during my term as party secretary. Someday, there will be someone who will do better than I can. But I will do my best while I hold this job and I will set up a good foundation for the reconstruction. Otherwise, I will be a sinner.
Q. The reconstruction time frame for the Sichuan disaster has been extended to eight years. If you should retire one day, what do you want to say most of all?
A: For more than a decade, I have worked by myself in Mianzhu. I contributed my efforts to build and develop Mianzhu. My family is now living in a tent in Deyang city. So far, I have not been home to visit them even once. Even when I go to the meetings at the Deyang city command center, I had no time to go home and see my father, wife and child. I have strong feelings for Mianzhu. I like Mianzhu city and I like its people. I am 52 years old. Before the earthquake, I was thinking about settling down in Mianzhu after I retire. Today, I am looking at the aftermath of this huge disaster. I hope that I would do my best for the reconstruction of Mianzhu during the remainder of my term. Post-disaster reconstruction is systematic, scientific and well-planned. It should not be done just to achieve public impact. No matter whether it is me or my successor, we will not leave any regrets in the Mianzhu reconstruction.