Mainland China said Thursday for the first time that children at a school in Jiangxi province which was devastated by a huge blast last week had been forced to make fireworks.
But Prime Minister Zhu Rongji said the practice of “study through labor” was phased out last year and evidence still suggested last week’s explosion which killed at least 40 children was caused by a lone madman.
Explaining why he denied the school ever made fireworks in the days after the blast, Zhu said he was relying on police reports at the time.
But in response to foreign media reports questioning the explanation, Zhu said he sent an undercover team to the village of Fanglin which found the school had been forcing children to make fireworks until last year.
The investigators found the work stopped after an explosion at an illegal fireworks factory in a neighboring county in March last year which killed 30 people, 13 of whom were children. Zhu’s comments were in contrast to statements by foreign ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao this week accusing the foreign media of “absurd and erroneous” reporting of the blast.
Zhu Bangzao said investigations had proved a mentally disturbed villager had caused the blast in a suicide mission and that journalists had distorted the facts in order to attack China.
Premier Zhu said the investigation was still going on, but that so far there was no evidence to overturn the official version of events.
Parents have strongly rejected that explanation and have accused the government of a cover-up. They insist the villager being blamed for the blast was in fact working at the school making fireworks.
“I do believe no one is able to cover up historical truths, so the investigation will continue until we really get the full picture. But up to now there is no evidence that can be found to override the conclusions we already draw,” Zhu said.
In an unusual move for mainland Chinese leaders, Zhu apologized for the incident.
“I feel very sad because this incident occurred despite the fact that President Jiang Zemin made lots of important instructions on efforts to prevent those explosions and accidents,” Zhu said.
“The State Council has not performed its mission properly. I feel very sad and I carry a very heavy heart. I want to apologize and review and reflect on my own work.”
The premier said the government would learn from the lesson of the Jiangxi blast and vowed to punish those guilty of forced child labor.