China leader admits kids made fireworks

But premier asserts practice was stopped after an earlier blast

March 16, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - Under fire from foreign and domestic news media, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji acknowledged yesterday that a school that exploded last week, killing more than 40 people, had used children to manufacture firecrackers as recently as 1999.

Zhu apologized for the incident, but insisted that child labor was not a factor. He said the Ministry of Public Security had sent investigators to the site in Jiangxi Province and that they had determined that the school had stopped making firecrackers.

"That school in 1999 did ask some of the students to mount fuses for fireworks in the name of `work-for-study,'" said Zhu at a two-hour news conference that capped parliament's annual legislative session.

But after explosions in a nearby city, Zhu said, "the school has stopped such practice and ... no evidence has been found which would indicate the production of fireworks or the assembly of fireworks."

Zhu's highly unusual admission came more than a week after an elementary school in the remote village of Fanglin blew up, killing at least several dozen children. Victims' parents blamed the blast on the school's practice of using children to make firecrackers, a cottage industry in the area.

Local police reacted to the explosion by setting up roadblocks to prevent foreign reporters from entering the village. A Chinese reporter said domestic journalists were forced to submit their articles to local officials for censorship in an attempt to cover up the cause of the blast.

Two days later, Premier Zhu told Hong Kong reporters that the disaster was the work of a lone suicide bomber who officials said had entered the school with two bags of firecrackers and set them off. At the time, Zhu insisted the school had not been used to manufacture firecrackers.

"Certainly it's not the case that this primary school was trying to earn money by renting out space to store materials for fireworks," Zhu said. "That's not the case."

In the wake of Zhu's original comments, parents in Fanglin labeled the government's explanation a wicked lie. A backlash quickly developed online, where Chinese attacked the otherwise well-respected premier on Internet bulletin boards.

While Zhu continued to deny yesterday that fireworks manufacturing led to the explosion, he took responsibility for the practice the blast exposed: the widespread use of schoolchildren to make firecrackers in Jiangxi's Wanzai County, in Central China, about 480 miles south of Shanghai.

"The State Council [China's Cabinet] has not performed its mission properly," said Zhu, appearing anguished and solemn before reporters at the Great Hall of the People, the nation's Stalinesque parliament building. "I feel very sad, and I carry a very heavy heart. I want to apologize and reflect on my own work."

After Zhu's acknowledgement yesterday, some villagers continued to differ with the government's version of events. One villager said the school had continued to make fireworks throughout last year and had hidden materials before inspections by upper-level officials.

Zhang Chenggen, who lost his 11-year-old son Zhang Yi in the blast, said he thought children might not have been making fireworks at the time of the explosion. But he said administrators had recently doubled up third-graders in one classroom so they could turn another into a small fireworks factory.

"They wanted to empty a classroom to make it a workshop for plugging in fuses," said Zhang, who added that the blast site still held evidence of fireworks. "There are still firecracker wrappers. You can see them on the scene now."

No one may ever know what really happened in Fanglin village last week.

But the fact that China's premier was forced to clarify his earlier explanation demonstrates how technology and an increasingly aggressive Chinese news media are providing a check on the world's last major Communist regime.

The government owns all newspapers, television and radio stations in China and bans access to most foreign news media. Usually, the Communist Party can control how major stories are presented here.

This time, though, enterprising reporters and the growing reach of the Internet caught the authoritarian regime flat-footed as it tried to peddle its version of events to a skeptical public.

Zhu said yesterday that he would fire officials who oversee schools using children to make fireworks and hold them criminally responsible for any accidents. The premier said that while he believes a lone bomber was responsible for the explosion, the investigation is not over.

"I do believe no one is able to cover up historical truth," he said. "So, the investigation will continue until we really get the full picture."

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