Chinese Police Break Up Protesters Ouside School Destroyed by Earthquake

Chinese police Wednesday blocked access to a school that collapsed in last month's massive earthquake, a day after breaking up a protest by parents of students who died in the disaster.

A cordon of police held back reporters and others gathered at Juyuan Middle School on the edge of Dujiangyan in Sichuan province. More than 270 students died when the school collapsed in the May 12 earthquake.

Police were also out in force at the Xiange Middle School, where 300 students died. Unlike at other schools, no memorials, banners, or photos of children had been set up at the school, also near Dujiangyan.

"There is no use protesting ... no one ever comes here," said a man who lived near the school. He would give only his surname, Ding.

Ding said officials had told local residents not to cause any problems by protesting.

The State Council, or Cabinet, said Wednesday that the confirmed death toll rose to 69,122, an increase of 17 from a day earlier. Spokesman Lu Guangjin refused to say how many of them were children.

Lu said special Cabinet meetings had been held to handle the deaths of school children. He said work was also under way "to evaluate the safety of existing school buildings in the disaster area so school can resume."

On Tuesday, police broke up a group of parents protesting outside a Dujiangyan courthouse over the loss of their children. The police action was the sternest response so far by authorities toward dozens of grieving parents who had been holding impromptu gatherings and memorial services to vent their anger.

The students' deaths have become the focus for Chinese, both inside and outside the quake zone, fueling accusations about corruption in school construction. Angry parents and even rescuers have pointed to steel rods in broken concrete slabs that were thinner than a ball point pen among the 7,000 classrooms that were destroyed.

"Oh, my child!" one woman wailed as officers took the arms of the Juyuan school parents gathered outside the courthouse Tuesday.

"Tell us something!" other parents shouted as police led them away.

Surrounded by police at a side entrance to the courthouse, the parents tried to present what some described as a lawsuit, saying they had no other option because local officials were not responding.

The papers were refused, the parents said, and calls to local police were not answered.

The government has taken some steps to try to help grieving parents. On Tuesday, Beijing began giving compensation to some families whose children died in the quake — about $144 per year to each parent who lost an only child. The Ministry of Civil Affairs also announced that parents who had lost their only child had first priority in adopting children orphaned by the disaster.

Suspicions between the government and grieving parents have grown since the quake, although the Chinese government had been generally praised for its response, including the freedoms allowed both to foreign and domestic media.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said the "principle of transparency and openness remains unchanged." However, he also said local authorities were making decisions based on the conditions in the disaster zone, though "they are not trying to block any news or make difficulties for the reporters."

In the first such case, Xinhua reported Wednesday that the Shifang City People's Court sentenced Mao Fanglin to 7 1/2 years in jail for stealing goods from collapsed buildings.

Mao was arrested May 16 in Shifang, just north of the capital Chengdu, trying to flee with stolen goods worth about $2,900. The court said Mao was given a "harsh" sentence because he was stealing from people who had already suffered great losses.

Meanwhile, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Wednesday that there is still no sign of a helicopter that crashed Saturday while ferrying earthquake survivors. Thousands of soldiers have combed remote mountains in search of the military helicopter.

The Russian-designed Mi-171 transport was carrying at least 14 people — including four crew and 10 survivors — when it flew into fog and turbulence and crashed near the epicenter of the quake in the town of Wenchuan, Xinhua said.