The deaths of children, many buried under ruins of shoddily built classrooms while nearby buildings withstood the tremors, has been the most controversial aspect of the disaster.
The 7.9 magnitude quake killed more than 80,000 people and horrified China but spurred both government and private individuals into a largely effective and widely praised response.
Update: The death toll of 19,000 may not be as clear-cut as it appears, according to the Los Angeles Times:
At a news conference on preparations for the winter in the quake zone, Wei Hong, executive vice governor of Sichuan, gave the student death toll as 19,065 — nearly a quarter of the total death count — a figure that was immediately quoted in stories by Chinese state-run and foreign news services.
Soon, however, an officer from the Sichuan provincial propaganda office said an official translation at the news conference misconstrued Wei’s remarks. He said the 19,065 figure was the total number of earthquake victims who have been identified.
For many, including the angry parents of children who died when their unstable schools collapsed, the about-face spoke volumes of how Chinese officials deal with sensitive revelations: a moment of candor followed by a contradictory reversal.
The International Herald Tribune explains how the misunderstanding occurred:
Asked about the final student death toll by a foreign reporter, Wei gave a lengthy answer that ended with the figure 19,065 – more than double previous estimates and one that would suggest that a quarter of the earthquake victims were children. Lest there be any doubt, the official English translation of Wei’s remarks placed the word “student” after the figure 19,065.
The news was immediately picked up by foreign and Chinese media. Within hours it was posted on the central government’s main Web site. In a country where official statistics are often taken with a grain of salt, the figure seemed a stunningly frank admission that the quake’s toll on children had been even more horrific than anyone imagined.
Later, however, the government issued a clarification, insisting that Wei’s remarks had been flubbed by his translator.