Sensitive photo removed from China quake exhibit

Picture hinted at shoddy school construction; museum official: "We don't know if we were told to remove the photo...and if we were told to remove the photo, we're not sure we could tell you."

china quake 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
china quake 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
A photograph hinting at shoddy school construction was pulled from an exhibition about last month's devastating earthquake, an apparent indication of rising sensitivity over the issue that has already prompted angry, emotional protests from parents of children killed when the buildings collapsed. The photo showed a hand clutching a twisted steel reinforcement bar that looked no thicker than a pencil, taken from the ruins of the middle school in the town of Juyuan, one of about 40 that collapsed in the May 12 quake. The picture featured prominently among a collection of quake artifacts when it opened to the public last week. By the weekend, though, it was gone. Organizers were reluctant to say exactly why. "We don't know if we were told to remove the photo," said Wu Zhiwei, assistant to the general manager of Museum Cluster Jianchuan, the organizer of the exhibit and the largest privately run museum in China. "And if we were told to remove the photo, we're not sure we could tell you," he added. School collapses have become one of the most charged issues in the quake recovery process, and one that local communist leaders seem anxious to suppress. The entire state-controlled media have almost completely ignored the issue, apparently under the instructions of the propaganda bureau. Parents and volunteers helping them who have questioned authorities about the issue have been rounded up, detained, and threatened. Juyuan has become a center of the collapsed schools issue, with police pulling grieving parents away from a courthouse where they knelt this month in an attempt to submit a lawsuit. On Sunday, police cordoned off the area surrounding the town's collapsed middle school where nearly 300 students died, angering parents who had come to observe the 35th day of mourning, a key date in local tradition. "It's as if we're bad people now," said a man who said he was the father of a dead student. "This is our last chance to burn incense and they don't let us in," said the man, who declined to give his name, underscoring a growing reluctance to be publicly identified and possibly targeted by authorities. Engineers hired to inspect the school rubble say many of them, including the one in Juyuan, were poorly sited and badly built. The government has promised to submit a report on the schools by June 20, possibly opening the door to charges or lawsuits. Authorities are always suspicious of independent activism, however, and the possibility of being implicated in school problems offers officials a strong incentive to suppress information about such cases. Despite the removal of the photo from Juyuan, the quake exhibit on a sprawling campus about an hour's drive from the provincial capital of Chengdu still offered potent reminders of the school tragedies, including schoolbook bags, smashed desks and children's shoes. Identification cards, crushed appliances and hundreds of other personal items were pulled from the rubble and donated by military rescuers and volunteers. They were displayed alongside hundreds of photos of victims, relief workers and quake devastation. The collection even included a megaphone said to have been used by Premier Wen Jiabao as he toured the ruins soon after the quake. The exhibit ends with a wall of photos of about 2,000 people killed in the quake, China's worst natural disaster in a generation. Visitors on Saturday said they found the exhibit both open and moving. "It reflects the reality," said Hou Mincu, a retired professor from Sichuan's capital, Chengdu. Zheng Chengzhi, a 42-year-old from Chengdu said the display showed many questions remained unanswered following the quake, which killed almost 70,000 people. "The earthquake isn't finished yet," said Zeng. "Construction and other issues, we need to talk about these things."