June 21st 2008

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: 'Peak oil': Apocalypse now?

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Whither the Nationals?

ECONOMIC AFFAIRS: What happens after cheap credit, oil and food?

SAME-SEX RELATIONSHIPS: Rudd grants special rights to same-sex couples

FAMILY POLICY: Home truths about working families

EUTHANASIA: Assisted suicide: safeguards or naivety?

NATIONAL SECURITY: Soviet bloc espionage: setting the record straight

DEFENCE: Should Australia have nuclear defence capability?

CHINA: Beijing muzzles protests over Sichuan earthquake

UNITED STATES: Is Obama equipped to lead the free world?

CULTURE: How political correctness threatens Australian culture

ART: The downward spiral of modern art

Barack Obama's oratory (letter)

Why cutting Australian emissions won't work (letter)

Baby imports? (letter)

Short-term stupidity (letter)

CINEMA: New Narnian epic Prince Caspian surpasses expectations

BOOKS: INKLINGS OF HEAVEN: C.S. Lewis And Eschatology, by Sean Connolly

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Beijing muzzles protests over Sichuan earthquake

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, June 21, 2008
Beijing's response to the Sichuan earthquake has been to cover up its own culpability for the tragedy and to impose harsher censorship on the media. Peter Westmore reports.

The earthquake which devastated parts of Sichuan Province in China was an appalling tragedy, taking over 70,000 lives, with thousands more still missing. What has made the tragedy even worse are repeated and authoritative reports that the number of lives lost should have been substantially lower.

There are reports that the Seismological Bureau in Gansu, a province adjoining Sichuan, had predicted the earthquake, even nominating where its epicentre might be, but the warnings were ignored.

Even more seriously, there is very strong evidence that schools were disproportionately affected by the earthquake, and that thousands of children lost their lives unnecessarily because of shoddy workmanship, which was reportedly the result of corruption.

The buildings worst affected were recently built schools and multi-storey apartment buildings.

There is no doubt that many schools were completely destroyed while neighbouring buildings escaped unscathed. Many thousands of school children lost their lives in these buildings, while others in the immediate vicinity were barely affected.

Parents protest

International media observers have reported demonstrations by parents of children killed in the tragedy, demanding that local government officials and construction companies be held accountable.

Michael Bristow of the BBC News, reported: "Parents fear there will not be a proper investigation into why so many schools collapsed in last month's earthquake in China.

"Many complain that although local authorities have promised to investigate, they are slow to give out information and worried that contractors and officials responsible for shoddily-built classrooms will not be held accountable." (BBC News, June 6, 2008).

Mr Bristow added that an American structural engineer, Kit Miyamoto, had inspected the Juyuan Middle School where 270 children died, while he was in Sichuan checking other buildings for clients.

On a website posting, he concluded that the school's concrete floors collapsed because they were not supported properly.

"Just imagine building a Lego house, but using Lego blocks that have no protruding nubs to tie the Legos together," he wrote. "This Lego house would not be able to resist lateral shaking. The school building is like these weak Lego houses."

An expert from China's ministry of construction also came to a similar conclusion, according to China's Southern Weekend newspaper.

He said there were problems with the school's location, structure and with the materials used to build it, it was reported.

But despite the complaints, Juyuan's local authority is saying little. No-one was available when the BBC asked for an interview with a senior official.

And officials appear to be attempting to tone down public displays of grief and anger. The school was sealed off earlier this week with a police guard to prevent people from going in.

In recent days, the regime is now clamping down on the Chinese media, to prevent further reporting of this tragedy, and police have been used to disperse demonstrations by parents who want to take legal action against those they consider responsible for the collapse.

Mark Magnier, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times, said, "The propaganda ministry and the State Council, China's Cabinet, have issued directives to state-run news media outlining forbidden topics. Among them: questions about school construction, whether government rescue efforts lagged and whether Beijing knew in advance that the earthquake would happen but failed to warn people. Although the latter issue is scientifically questionable, it has nonetheless transfixed millions of Chinese Internet users." (Los Angeles Times, June 5, 2008).

Further, journalists in the region report only "positive" stories such as the handling of the artificial dams caused by rockfalls into rivers, and not the causes of the extensive damage caused by the earthquake.

All this is a matter of deep concern. There should be an open public inquiry, if not in China, then internationally, so that the mistakes of the past are not repeated, and so that, where there has been criminal negligence, those responsible should be held to account.

The Australian Government should be demanding justice for the people of Sichuan, and should sponsor an international inquiry into the response to the earthquake.

With the Olympic Games imminent, it should also call on the Chinese Government to ensure freedom of speech for visitors and journalists visiting China.

What does this tragedy tell us about the Beijing regime, which calls itself a "people's democracy"?

The regime is utterly unaccountable to the people, and it is not democratic.

It protects those who have contributed to the huge loss of life, and not the victims' families.

The cover-up following the Sichuan earthquake is part of a wider, more systematic abuse of human rights by the Beijing regime.

- Peter Westmore

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