China quake brings aftershocks of graft

By William Foreman and Cara Anna, AP

YINGXIU, China — A Chinese police car had been tipped onto its side by an angry crowd. TV footage showed its lights still blinking.

It was the most striking example of anger directed at allegedly corrupt officials after this month’s earthquake in China, where the authoritarian government usually keeps tight control of society and quickly suppresses dissent.

The scale of the disaster, which officials say could have a death toll of more than 80,000 with 5 million homeless, has given people more room than normal to express their frustrations.

Parents have gathered bags of concrete dust from collapsed schools, calling it evidence of shoddy construction, and protested in the rubble. Citizens question the transparency of relief donations, such as why some tents marked “disaster only” have appeared in upscale neighborhoods barely touched by the quake.

Chinese people have built up years of deep distrust of officials seen as corrupt and indifferent in a society where everyone scrambles for a piece of the blazing economy.

Even as China’s top leaders have won praise for their response to the country’s worst disaster in a generation, the skepticism remains, especially about local officials.

In a rare public outburst captured last week in footage obtained by AP Television News, hundreds of residents of Deyang city gathered outside a children’s clothing store where they suspected an official had stashed 10 boxes of earthquake relief goods.

The footage shows the crowd cheering as two young men climb on a police car and stomp around. One raises his fist. The footage does not show what happens next, but cuts to a shot of the car upturned, the street around it empty.

The state-run Xinhua News Agency, normally quiet on any sign of Chinese unrest, didn’t mention the scenes. But it did report that a Deyang official had been detained on suspicions of misusing earthquake aid.

In a further sign of the government’s sensitivity on the issue, the ruling Communist Party’s top anti-graft body, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, issued guidelines last week promising “quick, strict and harsh penalties” for any officials caught embezzling quake relief, Xinhua reported.

In another case, police had to break up a crowd of about 500 that had gathered around a relief tent in an upscale neighborhood in Chengdu, the capital of hardest-hit Sichuan province. Several people were playing mahjong inside, and a man said he “took the tent through connections,” the Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper reported.

“We are angry, surprised and sad that those tents are not used properly,” Li Chengyun, vice governor of Sichuan, told journalists. “We will punish those violations severely. We welcome the watchdog role of the reporters, because such practices are despicable.”