The news conference on Friday was meant to explain how far the government has come in helping victims of the earthquake that devastated Sichuan Province last May. More than 200,000 homes have been rebuilt, 685,000 are under reconstruction and $441 billion will be spent in the coming years to help make Sichuan whole again, Wei Hong, the provincial vice governor told reporters.
By Andrew Jacobs
The New York Times
But a garbled translation of Mr. Wei’s words ended up shifting public attention from reconstruction efforts to unresolved questions about how many children perished beneath the rubble of their poorly built schools.
Asked about the final student death toll by a foreign reporter, Mr. Wei gave a lengthy answer that ended with the figure 19,065 — more than double previous estimates and one that would suggest that a quarter of earthquake victims were children. Lest there be any doubt, the official English translation of Mr. Wei’s remarks placed the word “student” after the figure 19,065.
The news was immediately picked up by the foreign and Chinese media. Within hours it was even posted on the central government’s main Web site. In a country where official statistics are often taken with a grain of salt, the figure seemed like a stunningly frank admission that the earthquake’s toll on children had been even more horrific than anyone imagined.
Later, however, the government issued a clarification, insisting that Mr. Wei’s remarks were flubbed by his translator. The figure 19,065 applied to the number of positively identified victims, it said, not the number of dead students.
For now, the official death toll from the quake stands at 69,227, with 18,222 missing. A government spokesman said the authorities were still working on a final tally of dead students. In the past, the government has said that 7,000 classrooms were destroyed across the province.
Coming six months after the 7.9-magnitude earthquake, the episode has refocused attention on aspects of a national catastrophe that the government would rather forget. Although an investigative committee acknowledged in September that many of the schools that crumbled were shoddily constructed, the government has yet to issue a full report, and yet to hold anyone accountable.