9 March 2001
SHANGHAI, March 8 China's Prime Minister, Zhu Rongji, faced off today against angry parents of children who were killed in a rural schoolhouse explosion this week by contradicting their account of what caused the blast.
Mr. Zhu, speaking to Hong Kong television reporters in Beijing, said he was certain that the explosion, which killed at least 41 people, was caused by a deranged suicide bomber who entered the small school in Jiangxi Province Tuesday morning and set off bags of explosives before the children could escape.
"Certainly," he said, "it's not the case that this primary school was trying to earn some money by renting out space to store materials for fireworks. That's not the case."
But many parents of students killed in the blast told reporters by telephone that their children were assembling fireworks in the school and that the government was trying to cover up the incident.
"The explosion was caused by gunpowder that students were filling firecrackers with," said Zhang Minggen, 45, a villager whose 10-year-old daughter died in the explosion. Mr. Zhang, reached by telephone this evening, said there were two sacks of gunpowder.
The Associated Press, Reuters, the BBC and Agence France-Presse all reported similar accounts from parents reached by dialing telephone numbers at random in the village, Fanglin. Reporters for the BBC and Agence France-Presse who tried to reach the village on Wednesday were stopped at roadblocks several miles away.
Mr. Zhu did not explain why he was certain that officials in the impoverished region were not covering up a highly illegal operation gone awry, one that would almost certainly bring the death penalty for those responsible if the parents' allegations were proved. The incident, which has drawn international attention during the country's annual parliamentary session, may have caused embarrassment among central government leaders who face a growing economic crisis in the countryside, the Communist Party's traditional base of power. But putting himself at odds with
aggrieved parents who have already spoken to foreign reporters is certain to draw more attention to the incident. Mr. Zhu will face the press corps in a news conference at the close of the National People's Congress next Thursday.
Mr. Zhu's quick denial that fireworks were being assembled at the school was even more surprising because incidents of schoolchildren making fireworks in the region are apparently common. An official in Wanzai County's propaganda office, who refused to give her name, said on Wednesday that the elementary school had been used to assemble fireworks in the past.
And a Wanzai County school official told Reuters today that third graders assembled fireworks there to earn extra money for the cash- strapped school. Wanzai is in the heart of China's fireworks-making region.
"It's such a common phenomenon here," Reuters quoted the school official as saying. "It happens to every school in every village and every county."
Fanglin residents said dozens of angry parents demonstrated in front of the devastated school building today before being dispersed by paramilitary police. By afternoon, the village was effectively under martial law with residents prohibited from gathering in the streets, they said.
"Tonight, they bulldozed the whole school building so the scene of the accident no longer exists," Mr. Zhang said. He said one mother who was wailing her child's name this morning was taken away by a car.
"They have driven away all the reporters," he said. "They even blocked all the roads. Why?"
Mr. Zhu insisted to the Hong Kong reporters in Beijing that a deranged man was to blame.
"He had grievances and was mentally ill," the prime minister said. "His wife had divorced him, so he was alone and single and he transported these fireworks and materials to the ground floor. He lit them and he blew himself up."
But villagers dismissed the government's assertion that the body of a 65-year-old man found in the wreckage was a suicide bomber, saying he was the man who periodically delivered gunpowder to the school.
"Everybody knows it was caused by the fireworks," the father of an 11- year-old killed in the blast told the Associated Press. "The government is trying to cover the facts. Please do not believe them."