By Zhang Jinghua
Published: 2008-05-15

As I turned my gaze away from those heart-wrenching photographs, my eyes were teary.

One photo showed a row of lifeless students being laid on the cracked ground, in the compound of the Dujiangyan's Exiang Middle School, which had collapsed during the 7.8-magnitude quake that hit Sichuan on May 12. Of the 420 students buried under debris, only less than 100 had been saved as of May 13.

Numerous schools and students were buried under debris. And we wonder how many more children are waiting to be rescued in places we have yet to hear of.

Why so many schools have collapsed? Why are children the victims? Natural disasters are beyond control, but minimizing damage is something within human capacity.

Why are school buildings always among the most fragile in the face of a disaster? Despite the country's rapid economic growth and greater support for education in recent years, the proportion of fiscal spending on education in China is still lower than most countries.

Why are the best buildings in an area usually the government offices? In some regions, large sums of money are invested on government assets in spite of poor public facilities and low living standards among ordinary people.

We have seen magnificent government buildings in poor cities where disasters frequently hit. This time around, we saw elegant government buildings remain intact while dozens of schools crumbled like sand houses.

It's always been our pride that we are a nation that respects the old and cherishes the young. It's also been many officials' mottos that children and education always come first, however hard the situation is. Yet our schools are still so fragile.

Hopefully, we have learnt our lessons during this disastrous year. We call for more stringent standards to be set to enforce public infrastructure, such as schools, hospitals and bus terminals. Safety guidelines, especially those on quake and fire prevention, for public buildings must be strictly adhered to.

Every level of the government should ensure that standards – which should be on par with those applied to government offices - are met, and for unqualified public buildings, the government should provide funding for restoration or rebuild.

Donation drives for the quake victims have gained momentum, we are willing and wanting to give donations to the disaster-hit areas, but we don't want to see the money channeling into splendid government buildings!

Looking back at the Karamay accident* in 1994, a directive to "let the leaders go first" left hundreds of children and teachers to perish in a fire. We hope such an incident will never again recur.

*Note: The fire in Karamay, Xinjiang province, happened during a show by local students to welcome higher-up officials in the city's Youyi Theater. When the fire broke out, the students were told to wait until the officials had safely left the scene before evacuating.  

Translated by Zuo Maohong