China Releases Student Quake Death Figures

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During a press conference in Chengdu today the Sichuan provincial government announced that 5,335 students died or remain missing after last year’s devastating earthquake. The collapse of a large number of schoolhouses was one of the most significant and sensitive stories in last year’s quake. Many parents alleged that official corruption and shoddy building practices were to blame. It has often seemed like a tally of student deaths, which have been estimated to be as high as 16,000, would never come.

This newly released tally, which the Sichuan education bureau head called “responsible” and “credible,” will undoubtedly be disputed. The artist Ai Weiwei, with the help of many volunteers, has been compiling an independent figure for student deaths. After today’s official announcement he told the AP: “There’s no significance to this announcement because it didn’t give any names or any other information on where they died, which schools or which classes they were in. This is nonsense.” Last month the independent tally that Ai’s group was compiling stood at 4,876, and they estimated could climb to more than 7,000.

As Ai says, there are no details of what the government’s tally represents, but I’ll attempt to put it in perspective. According to China’s 2007 statistical yearbook, students in elementary, middle and high school equaled 16% of the population in Sichuan.  The official figure of 5,335 students dead or missing equals 6% of the total number of dead or missing–86,633. So, per the official count, the number of student deaths was disproportionately small. Even taking the high end of the Ai Weiwei group’s estimate, say 8,000, and you only get 9% of the total casualties, still smaller than the overall proportion of students in Sichuan.

Those deaths are all tragedies, and tallying percentages feels unpleasantly analytical. But I think there’s something interesting here. The official argument, that schools collapsed simply because of the severity of the magnitude 8.0 earthquake, could be true. And so could the argument of parents that some schools wouldn’t have collapsed if they had been better built. But by avoiding an open enquiry, and trying its best to thwart independent investigations by Ai Weiwei and others, the government has ensured its numbers will be questioned, and the anger of many parents of dead students in Sichuan won’t be quenched.