BEIJING (Reuters) - China on Thursday put the official number of dead and missing schoolchildren from last year’s devastating Sichuan earthquake at 5,335, far lower than the number compiled from news reports at the time.
The number was announced by Tu Wentao, the province’s education department head, at a news conference in the provincial capital Chengdu, the official Xinhua news agency said.
Many parents blame shoddy buildings for the deaths, pointing to apartments and government offices that survived while nearby schools fell.
The May 12 quake killed around 80,000 people in total.
A compilation of reports from Xinhua and local newspapers at the time put the number of dead and missing children and teachers at around 9,000.
Ai Weiwei, a prominent artist and building designer who has been compiling his own student death toll, told Reuters he did not believe the government numbers.
“First, these numbers far from reflect reality. Second, they are irresponsible,” he said by telephone.
Ai said his volunteers had confirmed 5,200 deaths, and that there were probably another 1,000 or so who had also died. The total figure may be around 7,000, he added.
“They did not conduct a proper survey,” Ai said of the official findings. “This reflects badly on the government’s credibility.”
Tu also said 3,340 schools needed rebuilding following the quake.
“Sichuan province has pledged to have 95 percent of the students back in school buildings, rather than tents or prefabricated structures, before the end of this year. All students should be in regular school buildings by next spring,” Xinhua added.
Chinese experts have assigned blame on shoddy construction, inadequate standards for such a powerful quake and lax enforcement of them, and brittle walls of aged school buildings.
Some parents who have pressed the government for redress have ended up being harassed or detained.
Foreign reporters working in the disaster zone have also been roughed up, a measure of the government’s sensitivity to protest and criticism.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China this week said it had recorded three instances of reporters being attacked in Sichuan.
“Given the violence of the encounters and an apparent increasing frequency of reports, it seems the situation is becoming more volatile and we advise extra caution when visiting these areas,” it said in a statement.
A Sichuan government spokesman, Hou Xiongfei, said no complaints had been received and accused some reporters of creating trouble.
“Certainly a small number of overseas media have come to the disaster zone not to report but to stir things up. Some reporters ask survivors questions like ‘why don’t you organize and fight the government?’,” Xinhua quoted Hou as saying.
“What country or government would welcome this kind of journalist?”