WUFU, China – The rubble-strewn streets of Wufu are lined with wreaths, and white flowers made of folded paper hang from bushes. Among the symbols of grief are signs openly directing roiling anger at the government.
Almost three weeks after an earthquake shattered central China, anger is seething that corrupt officials may have allowed shoddy building construction that resulted in the deaths of thousands of children when schools collapsed in the disaster.
The anger — unusual in tightly-controlled China for its open challenge to the government — has not been cooled by repeated assurances that the issue will be thoroughly investigated and offenders severely punished.
And the source of the ire, grieving parents of the children who died, presents an uncommon challenge to officials used to squashing dissent with arrests or intimidation.
Outside the Fuxin No. 2 Elementary School, where 127 students perished when the quake struck on May 12, hangs a hand-painted banner of flowing black characters on plain white cloth.
"Children killed not just by natural disaster, but by a dangerous building," it reads. "Justice for our children," says another, topped with a black ribbon and cloth carnation.
Parents have been returning to school grounds and government offices to complain and demand punishment of corrupt or incompetent officials, in one case marching over country roads to bring their concerns to higher levels.
Officials have promised speedy investigations, but also appear to be moving to stifle media coverage of the complaints. Many parents say they've yet to hear anything reassuring, and their frustration is growing.
"No one is telling us anything," said Feng Jun, pacing the rubble of the Juyuan school holding a picture of her son, Lan Chengdong, who was among the hundreds of students killed when it collapsed. "It doesn't seem like anyone cares."
The simmering anger over school collapses show how China's communist government, despite garnering praise for its rapid response to the quake, could still face a backlash as the initial shock wears off and people come to grips with a grim-looking future.
The government expects the final death toll to exceed 80,000. About 5 million people are homeless.
Officials say more than 7,000 schoolrooms were destroyed in the disaster, which struck at 2:28 p.m. local time as classes were in session. Often, schoolhouses were the only buildings in the area to fully collapse and experts say China's problem, similar to that in many other parts of the world, was a lack of commitment by governments to safe schools.
Yin Tian, a professor at prestigious Peking University Law School, said officials could face lawsuits — still a rare occurrence in China — over school collapses if they fail to deal with the issue with speed and sensitivity.
"Even if they don't win, the cases will shed some light on the issue," Yin said.
Authorities in Beijing have pledged severe punishment for those found responsible for substandard school construction, citing design defects and the use of obsolete buildings. They say quake resistance standards in cement and iron reinforcement were ignored by both builders and architects — reflecting parents' accusations they were unsafe "tofu crumb" constructions — and often overcrowded schools were provided with too few exits.
Aware of the latent discontent, authorities have tried to divert public attention and motivate the recovery process with positive media coverage. Thousands of flapping red banners have been strung in towns and along roadsides throughout the quake zone, urging confidence and fortitude to "rebuild our homesteads."
"We don't know what to do and we don't have any support from the outside, but we'll keep pushing and keep waiting as long as we have to for justice," said Bi Kaiwei, a chemical plant worker who has been transformed into an activist by the death of his daughter, Yuexing.
He sits on a hard wooden chair at the site of the ruined Fuxin No. 2 Primary School in Wufu, a tiny village surrounded by fields of ripe winter wheat and emerald rice seedlings, near a shrine to the children made by their parents who lashed together poles and plastic sheeting.
Frustrated by a slow-moving initial investigation, Wufu parents marched on the municipal government headquarters in Deyang, carrying framed pictures of their dead children.
They were intercepted by Jiang Guohua, Communist Party secretary in Mianzhu, which oversees Wufu, but lies within Deyang's jurisdiction. He begged them not to take their complaints higher — a step that could bring embarrassment and punishment for him.
"Please trust that the Mianzhu party committee can solve this problem," Jiang, on his knees, his arms outstretched, told parents. Such a gesture of contrition by a party official toward citizens is highly unusual.
The appeal was ignored, however, and parents eventually met with Deyang Vice Mayor Zhang Jinming, who promised to wrap up an investigation within one month and put implicated officials on trial. Zhang heard similar complaints this week from parents in the city of Hanwang, where more than 200 students were killed in the Dongqi Middle School.
The Wufu campaign is striking because tiny rural villages in China rarely challenge authority and are usually ignored when they do. While officials have yet to crack down, an Associated Press photographer visiting the village on Thursday was forced to leave the area by police after being detained.
In Juyuan, a reporter's interview with Feng was repeatedly interrupted by a middle-aged woman who identified herself only as a volunteer. While Beijing says it takes such complaints seriously, the authoritarian government is intensely suspicious of whistleblowers and independent activists.
Tensions were evident during a recent visit to Wufu by a team from the local Discipline and Inspection Department, which investigates accusations of official wrongdoing ahead of any charges being brought.
Agitated parents surrounded the inspectors just outside the school's main entrance, loudly complaining that the evidence of graft and use of inferior materials was clear from the rubble of the school.
Looking harried, the bureau's vice secretary general, Li Wenzhong, tried begging for understanding.
"We need to clearly investigate and if there are charges to be brought we will hold a trial," Li told the angry group.
The appeal was at least partly successful, and some parents sat down at salvaged school desks to deliver statements to team members who wrote them out by hand. Other villagers remained skeptical, however.
"We don't trust them," said Huang Houjin, a stocky man with a crew cut whose 12-year-old son, Huang Qingfeng, was killed in the school collapse. "We don't think they'll take any action."