Grief, Anger Over 11 Deaths in Qiqihar School Roof Collapse

Ten young volleyball players and their coach were killed and four others injured when the roof of their middle-school gymnasium in Qiqihar, Heilongjiang province, collapsed during a practice on Sunday. The tragedy has touched off a wave of public anger about poor safety standards, shoddy school construction, and the callous behavior of officials more interested in carrying out “damage control” than in informing frantic parents what had happened to their children.

The collapse may have been caused by bags of construction materials, which had been stored atop the gymnasium for months, becoming waterlogged. Reuters reported on the details of the collapse and the status of the investigation:

A preliminary investigation found that construction workers illegally placed perlite, a mineral with high water content and which can absorb water, on the roof of the gymnasium during construction of a teaching building adjacent to the gymnasium, Xinhua [News Agency] reported.

Under persistent rains, the perlite soaked up water and gained weight, resulting in the roof collapse, state media said.

[…] An investigation is ongoing and individuals in charge of the construction company have been taken into police custody, Xinhua said. [Source]

The deaths in Qiqihar evoked memories of the many students who died when their poorly constructed classrooms collapsed during the 2008 earthquake in Wenchuan, Sichuan province. Keith Bradsher of the New York Times reported on how the collapse has revived nationwide public concern about school construction and safety issues:

School safety has long been an emotional issue in China. The collapse of 7,000 classrooms during the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, which killed as many as 10,000 schoolchildren, triggered a national outcry. Shoddy initial construction of schools, widely described as “tofu” buildings, was widely blamed for the heavy loss of children then.

[…] The official explanation [about the Qiqihar gymnasium collapse] differed from a longstanding worry about schools in China: whether they are shoddily built.

[…] Suspicions of faulty initial construction in Qiqihar were evident in Chinese social media postings on Monday. “Please investigate the tofu dregs construction project!” said one internet user who identified herself as the aunt of one of the victims.

The collapse of many schools in the Sichuan earthquake, which occurred three months before the start of the Beijing Olympics, prompted the Ministry of Education to issue regulations in 2009 requiring national and local government safety checks. [Source]

The collapse of the gymnasium is the latest public safety disaster to prompt calls for better enforcement of health and safety regulations, and for authorities to be more forthcoming in providing the public with information. There was widespread criticism of the health code violations that sparked a June 2023 gas leak and explosion at a barbecue restaurant in Yinchuan, Ningxia province, that killed 31 and injured seven. In April 2023, after 29 people—mostly sick or elderly patients—perished in a blaze at a hospital in Beijing, many netizens complained that the authorities seemed to be expending more energy controlling news of the fire than addressing the safety violations and regulatory failures that claimed so many lives. Just last week, China’s top safety watchdog placed four mining officials under investigation and pledged to crack down on cover-ups following a number of deadly mine accidents. And on Sunday, responding to criticisms that Heilongjiang province has not done enough to enforce health and safety rules, the provincial vice-governor Wang Yixin called for greater efforts to tackle the province’s “recent string of incidents.

Perhaps most galling in this latest case was the callous treatment of students’ parents in Qiqihar. Under the watchful eye of the local police, the families were kept in the dark for many hours, as their pleas for information about their children went unheeded. The South China Morning Post’s Yuanyue Dang described a viral video of one grieving father:

A widely circulated video filmed inside one of the hospitals where the injured were treated showed a man claiming to be the father of a dead pupil who said no one from the local government, the hospital or police had updated parents about the rescue progress for five hours.

Other parents in the video echoed his complaints about the lack of transparency.

The father’s ordeal drew an outpouring of sympathy online, with people reposting the video on social media and asking why the parents were not allowed to know what was happening to their children. [Source]

In the video mentioned above, the father of the deceased pupil complains about the heavy police presence at the hospital, and says that he and the other parents have been gathered together not to facilitate communication about their children’s medical status, but as a ploy to prevent them from causing trouble. “The reason the police are on duty here is to prevent folks from kicking up a fuss! And those government officials who were sent here, none of them have stepped forward to help the families!” More plaintive still is the fact that while he had been told his daughter had died, he was not  even allowed to view her body. “At least let me identify her,” he pleads. “For all I know, it might not even be my daughter.”

CDT Chinese editors have compiled a number of essays from social media on the gymnasium collapse. Although none appear to have been censored yet, they are almost uniformly critical of the lack of transparency by authorities, the vagueness of the official announcement and initial state-media reports, and the callous treatment of the families by government officials, school authorities, and hospital staff. 

One of the first essays to appear was by Zhang Sanfeng, who covers current events in Chengdu and beyond on the WeChat public account 成都客 (Chengdu Ke). In his essay “How many students were killed? You’ll have to do the math yourself,” he takes issue with the bizarre way that casualties were reported, in a seeming effort to blur the actual death toll:

Besides emphasizing that the leadership is taking [the incident] seriously, the media report chose a very meticulous way to express the death toll. It said that 14 people were rescued quickly, of which four showed no signs of life, and that six were given the utmost life-saving treatments, but died nonetheless, and that four had non-life-threatening injuries.

They’re very skilled at the art of communication. At a cursory glance, the information seems as follows: there were 19 people in the gymnasium, and 15 of them were trapped in the rubble, but 14 of them have already been rescued … sounds like impressive work, doesn’t it?

But let’s take a closer look. For those 15 people who were rescued, the situation is more complicated. “Four showed no signs of life.” Clearly, these 4 people were already dead when they were rescued, but rather than use that word “dead,” the report says “no signs of life.” The key word in this phrase is “life.”

“Six were given the utmost life-saving treatments, but died nonetheless.” In this case, they admit that those six people died, but in that sentence, composed of 11 [Chinese] characters, the word “died” comes last. Impatient readers may simply see “Six were given the utmost life-saving treatments,” which emphasizes that all possible efforts were made to save them. [Chinese]

Song Qingren, who blogs under the WeChat handle 剑客写字的地方 (Jianke Xiezi de Difang, “Where the Swordsman Writes”) penned an essay that made a similar point. Official announcements that skimp on details and fail to address root causes, he argues, rob us of the chance to learn from experience and avoid such tragedies in the future:

Tragedy requires no linguistic elaboration, but problems do. That’s because you need to understand and face up to problems in order to avoid them in the future. If you refuse to face up to a problem, then the next time that problem erupts, you will once again find yourself speaking only of tragedy. [Chinese]

In another recent essay, Xiang Dongliang, a popular science writer and current events commentator who writes under the WeChat handle 基本常识 (Jiben Changshi, “Basic Common Sense”) makes a compelling argument that, by ignoring the root causes of public safety disasters and treating them all as “public opinion crises” to be managed, political leaders and government agencies are making everyone in China less safe. In the absence of responsible government oversight, Xiang writes, the roles of vigilant citizens, whistleblowers, and investigative journalists are more crucial than ever.

Incidents that are clearly tied to public safety or social justice are all too often treated as “public opinion crises” by some local governments and regulatory agencies.

Deleting articles and videos can certainly eliminate the hidden dangers of negative public opinion that political leaders are so concerned about, but it only temporarily covers up the hidden dangers that imperil the lives and safety of the general public. Exerting control over the news media and online platforms can indeed quell a public opinion crisis, but it also wastes a precious opportunity to truly solve a problem, to eliminate hidden dangers, and to save lives. [Chinese]

Lastly, many visitors to Li Wenliang’s Wailing Wall in the last two days have posted comments about and memorials to the girls who died in the gymnasium collapse. Some of the commenters noted that the parsimonious press coverage, emphasis on “stability maintenance” at all costs, and treatment of the families who spoke out reminded them of how Dr. Li was targeted and censured for speaking the truth in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic:

十五的牙: Dr. Li, I really hate the term “stability maintenance.” You’ve also been afflicted by that term, haven’t you? It’s not “stability maintenance,” it’s covering people’s mouths, eyes, and ears. Eleven girls died today, in a man-made, totally man-made, disaster. Will you meet up with them? What will you say? It’s so sad—they’re like flowers that got struck down before they could even start to bloom.

飞虹2893352513: When I saw that video of those parents from Qiqihar, it made me think of you. 😭 

遥想佳雨余-: Doc Li, you’re probably going to meet 11 volleyball players today. They’re girls from my hometown, so please take good care of them. It’s such a tragedy. Some of those young girls were showing no vital signs at 5:00, but even at 8:00, the doctors said they were still trying to resuscitate them. Unbelievable.🤷


Hundreds of bouquets and cards are heaped outside the gate of Qiqihar’s No. 34 Middle School.

阳光如你夏日的微笑: After seeing what happened in Qiqihar, I remembered what you said: “There should be more than one voice in a healthy society,” just as healthy people should eat more than one kind of food. 😭 [Chinese]

Wailing Wall archive
, and selections here, compiled by Tony Hu.


Subscribe to CDT


Browsers Unbounded by Lantern

Now, you can combat internet censorship in a new way: by toggling the switch below while browsing China Digital Times, you can provide a secure "bridge" for people who want to freely access information. This open-source project is powered by Lantern, know more about this project.

Google Ads 1

Giving Assistant

Google Ads 2

Anti-censorship Tools

Life Without Walls

Click on the image to download Firefly for circumvention

Open popup

Welcome back!

CDT is a non-profit media site, and we need your support. Your contribution will help us provide more translations, breaking news, and other content you love.