China Presses Hush Money on Grieving Parents

HANWANG, China – The official came for Yu Tingyun in his village one evening last week. He asked Mr. Yu to get into his car. He was clutching the contract and a pen.

Mr. Yu’s daughter had died in a cascade of concrete and bricks, one of at least 240 students at a high school here who lost their lives in the May 12 earthquake. Mr. Yu became a leader of grieving parents demanding to know if the school, like so many others, had crumbled because of poor construction.

The contract had been thrust in Mr. Yu’s face during a long police interrogation the day before. In exchange for his silence and for affirming that the ruling Communist Party “mobilized society to help us,” he would get a cash payment and a pension.

Mr. Yu had resisted then. This time, he took the pen.

“When I saw that most of the parents had signed it, I signed it myself,” Mr. Yu said softly. A wiry 42-year-old driver, he carries a framed portrait of his daughter, Yang, in his shoulder bag.

Local governments in southwest China’s quake-ravaged Sichuan Province have begun a coordinated campaign to buy the silence of angry parents whose children died during the earthquake, according to interviews with more than a dozen parents from four collapsed schools. Officials threaten that the parents will get nothing if they refuse to sign, the parents say.

Chinese officials had promised a new era of openness in the wake of the earthquake and in the months before the Olympic Games, which begin in August. But the pressure on parents is one sign that officials here are determined to create a facade of public harmony rather than undertake any real inquiry into accusations that corruption or negligence contributed to the high death toll in the quake.

Officials have come knocking on parents’ doors day and night. They are so intent on getting parents to comply that in one case, a mayor offered to pay the airfare of a mother who left the province so she could return to sign the contract, the mother said.

The payment amounts vary by school but are roughly the same. Parents in Hanwang, a river town at the foot of mist-shrouded mountains, said they were being offered the equivalent of $8,800 in cash and a per-parent pension of nearly $5,600.

Flush with tax revenues after two decades of double-digit economic growth, China has used its financial muscle to make Beijing and Shanghai into architectural showcases and to open diplomatic doors in developing nations. At times, the state also acts like a multinational corporation facing a product liability suit, offering money to people with grievances in hopes of defusing protests. Most people, the government assumes, ultimately put profit before principle.

The tactic appears to work, including in the cases of the collapsed schools. Many parents said they signed the contract, even if they were displeased with the terms and still angry at the lack of any real investigation.

“Most of the parents now feel tired of this,” said Liu Guanyuan, 44, whose 17-year-old son died here, along with Mr. Yu’s daughter, in the collapse of Dongqi Middle School. “There’s a Chinese saying: The people sue the government, and the government doesn’t care.”

Officials are also using more traditional arrows in their authoritarian quiver: riot police officers have broken up protests by parents; the authorities have set up cordons around the schools; and officials have ordered the Chinese news media to stop reporting on school collapses. A human rights advocate trying to help some parents, Huang Qi, has been jailed.

Local government leaders have repeatedly promised to get to the bottom of why a staggering 7,000 classrooms collapsed in the quake, killing about 10,000 children. But there is little evidence that they have conducted more than a cursory examination, and there are hints of a cover-up. Even as negotiations with some parents continue, local governments have bulldozed the remains of many schools, appearing to close the door on a full investigation.

The issue remains one of the most delicate facing the Chinese government. Many parents accuse local officials of negligence or corruption during the construction of the schools. Some say they still hope the central government will take action, and they plan to go to Beijing to file petitions after the Olympics.

“We don’t want to get the government in trouble ahead of the Olympics,” Mr. Yu said. “We don’t want to hurt the nation’s image.”
[SUBTEXT: We don't want to be tortured or imprisoned by the Chinese Government]

Mr. Yu was among 11 parents and relatives of dead children from Dongqi who met with a reporter on Monday in a teahouse where shirtless men played mah-jongg. They said they were willing to risk talking to journalists in hopes that the central government would take notice.

Last week, Mr. Yu and about 10 parents were detained by the police during a protest. He said he was interrogated at a police station in the nearby city of Deyang for 12 hours, while other parents from the protest, including a pregnant woman, were beaten.

One woman, Huang Lianfen, said, “The local government has threatened us with beatings or punishment.”

Ms. Huang, 33, a factory manager, is the aunt of an 18-year-old boy who died in the Dongqi collapse. She said her brother, the boy’s father, was detained by the police last week and had so far refused to sign the contract.

“We’re asking not only for compensation, but also for justice,” she said.

On Monday, a vice mayor of Deyang, Zhang Jinming, met with the Hanwang parents and delivered the conclusion of his government’s investigation, the parents said. The school, he told them, collapsed solely because of the earthquake. He said the case was now closed.

Government offices in Sichuan Province and Deyang ignored a reporter’s calls seeking comment. A woman at the police headquarters in Deyang said she was unaware of the protest and detentions last week.

The New York Times obtained a copy of the compensation contract offered to parents from Hanwang. It is written as if the parents were appealing to a beneficent ruler for money.

“From now on, under the leadership of the party and the government, we will obey the law and maintain social order,” it says. “We vow resolutely not to take part in any activity that disturbs post-earthquake reconstruction.”

Another section is full of praise for the Communist Party: “Natural disaster is merciless, but the world is full of love. The party and the government reached out their hands to us and mobilized society to help us and alleviate our hardships. In this regard, we sincerely appreciate the help and care from the party, government and society!”

The contract does not state the payment amount, which officials discussed orally, the parents say.

One father, Ye Liangfu, said it was unfair that parents of high school students were not getting more than parents of younger children who died.

“Those parents whose kindergarten children died, they’re young, they can have another child,” he said.

Other parents who said they were asked to sign a contract represented Xinjian Primary School in Dujiangyan, Juyuan Middle School in Juyuan and Fuxin No. 2 Primary School in Mianzhu. Hundreds died in those schools. In each case, as here in Hanwang, buildings around the school remained standing.

“I heard that most of the parents in our school have signed it,” said Wang Lan, whose 8-year-old son died in the Xinjian collapse. “We parents can’t do anything about it. We’re helpless.”

Ms. Wang is staying with an aunt in Guangdong Province. She said in a telephone interview that the mayor of her township near Dujiangyan had called her several times to ask her to fly back by July 25 to sign the contract, which is for $10,000 in cash and an unknown pension amount.

Ms. Wang told the mayor the plane ticket was too expensive.

“If it’s too expensive, I’ll pay back the money to you when you return, even with my own money,” the mayor said, according to Ms. Wang. He even offered to send a car to the airport to pick her up, she said.

“I think the higher government must have placed a lot of pressure on the lower government,” Ms. Wang said. “They’re very nervous and pressed us so urgently to sign the paper.”

Ms. Wang said she was told that the ruins of Xinjian Primary School would be cleared away by Aug. 1.

Other schools have already suffered that fate. On Saturday, the remains of Fuxin No. 2 Primary School were cleared out, said Zhang Longfu, whose daughter died there.

“All the parents from the school have signed the agreement, although we’re not very satisfied with it,” Mr. Zhang said. “We’re still thinking of petitioning later.”

Several Fuxin parents declined to meet for interviews, a sign of how effective the government’s intimidation tactics have been. Those parents were once among the most vocal protesters. A photograph of several of them carrying portraits of their dead children and yelling at a kneeling government official became an intensely resonant image after the earthquake.

The parents from Hanwang say they are also worried that the Dongqi school will be torn down before a real investigation is conducted.

Before sunset on Monday, Mr. Yu walked along a river running past the eastern wall of the school compound. Peering over the wall, one could see piles of bricks and concrete all over the ground. He pointed out the few standing ruins of the main building. His daughter’s classroom had been on the fourth floor.

He said she had lived for two days after being buried alive, like some other students. She had even called out to him.

“We could hear them under the rubble,” he said. “We passed them milk and water, but it was no use.”

He smoked and stared at the debris.

Would the parents try protesting again? he was asked.

“We don’t dare,” he said.Z

Huang Yuanxi contributed research.

It’s a fever you can’t resist

Thank you Lacy Matsumoto for the review! and

by Lacy Matsumoto, Advertiser Staff Writer

On Hotel Street in Chinatown on a hot, sticky day, the smell of fried noodles and char siu fills the air. Bins full of exotic fruits such as lychee and dragonfruit spill out of the vendors’ shops, and shoppers pass quickly by to make their next purchase. Maneuvering between tiny old women holding their groceries, and tourists snapping pictures of the Hotel Street action, the walk to thirtyninehotel’s multimedia gallery is full of sensation.

The small door between two bars, NextDoor and Bar 35, creaks as it opens onto the steep staircase. The walls of the stairs are littered on either side with photos and press clippings. With each step up the staircase, the installation comes alive; bright colors flash into your line of vision.

The tall walls are lined with vivid colors, detail and psychedelic images, contemporary and re-worked vintage imagery. Flowers, ranging from a few inches to 3 feet across, are arrayed across the walls, on the DJ booth and bar area. A 4-foot-tall, black-and-white portrait of a woman draws your focus. The entire room is like a vision out of “Alice in Wonderland.”

The exhibit, “This Fever I Can’t Resist,” intends to ignite your mind with its intense visual art.

From a distance, Megan Wilson’s paisley patterns and retro flowers, strewn across one wall look like a giant display of multicolored flowers. As you step closer, each detail can be noticed, from intricately placed loops creating petals to precisely cut prints in floral shapes.

Carolyn Castano’s creation on the oppositewall radiates with neon green, yellow and orange stripes. The mirrors in the center of the neon flowers reflect the opposite wall’s color, and creates an illusion of depth within the flat-surfaced wall. The black-and-white image of the woman is reminiscent of an ’80s pop image, or a Warhol piece.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about the colors and patterns that I see in the city, the urban-scape. I take walks around my neighborhood in Los Angeles and am interested in the way people paint their houses and businesses. Fluorescent colors, neon, hand-painted signs,” said artist Castano. “The portrait is inspired by wanting to do portraits of friends, like Andy Warhol, but also like the pop illustrator Patrick Nagel, who made paintings of those chiseled ladies,” she explained.

Thirtyninehotel’s curator Trisha Goldberg was familiar with the two women’s work.

“Trisha used to be a curator here in SF, so I’ve known her for years,” Castano said.

In an interview from her California home, Wilson said of Goldberg: “She’s followed my work for a while now. She had asked me who I wanted to work with, and so of course Carolyn came to mind. This installation is the most direct collaboration we’ve done together,” said Wilson.

“I’ve never been to Hawai’i before this; what I knew about Hawai’i came from watching ‘Hawaii Five-0′ in the ’70s. So we really wanted to present something exotic and tropical,” said Wilson. “We decided that we’d utilize the walls separately with a few spaces that would collide, and that we’d both use some of the same fluorescent colors to tie our work together.”

Said Castano: “Megan and I have collaborated about five times on public wall installations and gallery exhibits. We kind of know our groove at this point — what the other person likes and where the boundaries are.”

Creating these murals was not simple.

“I worked on the installation for one week, from morning until when thirtyninehotel opened or sometimes into the night, even, while events were taking place,” said Castano.

Said Wilson: “We ordered the Nova Color paints and had them delivered to the gallery. The textiles I brought and are things I’ve been gathering over the years. I had to get all the paint for the stripes locally.”

Wilson, a San Francisco-based artist in her mid-30s, has been creating art for as long as she can remember. She learned mural painting from her mother.

“My mom painted the first flower mural in my room when I was 3. I guess the fruit doesn’t fall too far from the tree,” Wilson said with a laugh.

In recent years, Wilson’s full focus turned from making art to nonprofit work in the humanities, and she found a balance.

“I’m very detail oriented, and when I’m doing my artwork I get really consumed by it,” she said. “I don’t think I could do it nonstop. I feel like the work I do with social justice issues is just as important.”

Sharing something in common, Wilson and Goldberg use their artistic and creative minds for social issues and concerns. Goldberg, who also works for the Hawai’i State Museum, is in support of building the local art scene and bringing awareness to social issues through her art medium.

Castano, also is in her mid-30s, is based in Los Angeles. She’s preparing for a show with a group of artists from L.A. called the LA Art Girls. An artist since 1992, she studied art at UCLA.

“I’m making art, thinking about ideas, and living the dream of an art-filled life,” Castano said. “I was 18 when I started, so it was kind of dreamy and not too realistic. Now, I see it as my life. At times it can be a hard path, but other times are very rewarding.”

Stepping out onto the open patio of thirtyninehotel, and away from the installation, images of “This Fever I Can’t Resist” still linger in the summer heat.

A Picture Is Worth …

27,000 Words! That’s right — that and about 500 hours. OY!

No, it’s not my latest novel … though it feels like I should be receiving some sort of doctorate degree. The image represents all of the work that’s gone into Portola Family Connections‘ Anchor Institution Community Plan. It’s part of San Francisco’s Department of Children, Family, and Youth’s Anchor Institution Initiative.

As the planning consutltant for the project, I’ve been working on this since last December –
1) Developing a framework and timeline for implementing the planning process; 2) Helping to identify key groups of stakeholders to participate in the process; 3) Working with the Planning Team to draft community needs surveys tailored to each group of participants and analyzing the results; 4) Working with the Planning Team to follow-up on the survey results (we collected almost 500 surveys) with targeted focus groups and meetings; 5) Analyzing the results of the surveys and focus groups to prioritize community needs; 6) Working with Family Connections staff and Board to conduct an organizational assessment, including a staff survey and conducting two focus groups to help address the infrastructural needs for supporting the Anchor Institution Initiative; 7) Drafting the Anchor Institution Community Plan with timeline and action steps.

So for those of you who wonder what I’m doing when I’m not working on my installations or international projects, now you know.

I actually love doing this work; however, I will say this final part of the Anchor Institution process — tabulating and analyzing the data and developing a community plan based on the results — has been quite mind altering at times. BUT, the bonus is that when I need to take a break, my thoughts lead me to wacky Web searches on things that I’ve been wanting to find for years. This weekend, total scores!!!


I’ve been looking for a download of Rufus and Chaka Khan’s song Quandary from the album Camouflage for years. God Bless YouTube! I got this album in the early eighties when it came out and loved this song! Like so much of my music from that era, purchased on casette tapes, it’s all disappeared.


How amazing is this album cover?!!! WOW! More amazing is that I finally remembered the name of this band that I also loved and played incessantly. I actually subjected my Dad to 6 hours of Skyy while we drove from Billings to Minot North Dakota. I told Eliza this and her response was “Poor Kemp!!!” Indeed! However, I asked him if he could send me a hint from heaven to remember the name of the band, and he did — right after I asked, the words “call me” (my favorite song by Skyy) strongly came to mind and that’s what led me to finally finding my old love. Even in the after-life, my Dad’s wacky sense of humor is fully intact.


Now this might be the best find of the weekend. For years, I would ask people if they remembered the Purple Planet from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. My recollection was that this was the coolest part of the show, which I wasn’t that much a fan — but the Purple Planet was way worth sitting through all of the creepy characters from the Land of Make-Believe. One person said they vaguely remembered this. I was beginning to think that I’d completely made the whole thing up. But NO! Thanks to Google, I know I’m not crazy (at least on this). It really did exist!


Yes, MIA again… I wish that I could just post entries about my travels or the art projects that I’m working on (or should be), or fun social gatherings, or my social/cultural/political critiques that I tend to post most. However processing my Dad’s death has been much more challenging than I thought, given that it was one of the most loving, healthy deaths that one could go through. So the waves continue.

On a lighter note, Bay Area Now opens this weekend. Lots of great work!

I will be one of the participating artists of the Galleon Trade: Bay Area Now 5 Edition. Unfortunately, our exhibition doesn’t open until September 4th.

Galleon Traders participating in the show are:
Christine Wong Yap + Yason Banal
Jaime Cortez + Maria Taniguchi
Johanna Poethig + Peewee Roldan
Gina Osterloh + MM Yu
Megan Wilson + Poklong Anading