A total of 5,335 students died or went missing in the Sichuan earthquake, local authorities said Thursday, giving an official figure for the first time since 11,687 schools were destroyed or damaged on May 12.
No detailed list of the dead or missing students has been released. Instead, the number was calculated on the basis of applications received from families of dead or missing students for State compensation and relief funds, and is "reliable", Sichuan province's education chief Tu Wentao told a press conference.
Another 546 students were disabled in the quake, Tu said.
Denying allegations to the contrary, officials said a two-month investigation by more than 2,500 experts and field workers last summer did not find that substandard building materials had caused even a single school to collapse.
"We will investigate and severely punish relevant companies according to the law once there is concrete evidence to prove problems existed in building design and construction," Yang Hongbo, head of the construction department of the province, said.
Many parents have alleged that the schools collapsed because of "tofu dreg construction", a term used to describe construction projects that use low-grade cement and no steel bars for reinforcement.
The 8-magnitude quake killed more than 69,000 people and left 18,000 missing, according to official figures.
The Sichuan authorities had not spoken directly on the schools' issue until yesterday's press conference in Chengdu, provincial capital of Sichuan.
But the State Council, the country's Cabinet, recently promised that it would ensure new school buildings are safe, reliable and built under strict official supervision.
The release of the number of dead or missing students drew mixed reactions from across the country. Artist and activist Ai Weiwei, who has vowed to list the names of all the student victims, said the figure "is far from the truth".
Ai's probe, conducted with a team of about 60 volunteers, has identified 5,205 students so far. The list, published on his blog on Sina.com, includes the name, age, gender and family contact of each child victim. The artist said his team updates its findings and list of names whenever it gathers new information, but the site's management has deleted its entries more than 20 times.
"We've only finished 80 percent of our research, so the real number (of student victims) should be about 6,000," Ai said.
He claims to have shot a 100-hour video to prove local officials have tried to "buy silence" of parents demanding that certain officials be held responsible for the collapse of the school buildings.
Many bereaved parents want more information on the official death figure. "The number of deceased students is similar to what we thought," said Yang Mingyu from Beichuan, the worst hit township. Her 16-year-old son died along with about 1,300 other students when the Beichuan Middle School collapsed.
Yang said her greatest wish is "to find out the real reason behind the (school's) collapse". She hopes to build a monument with the names of the all the student victims on the ruins of the school, even as she struggles to move beyond the quake.
For Yinghua township resident Deng Qingyan, the official death figure, however, is another reminder of the disaster she has been desperately trying to forget.
Deng, 36, lost her daughter and still blames "tofu dreg construction" for the school collapse in which she was killed. Deng said her family got a 90,000-yuan ($13,200) compensation for her daughter's death and another 38,000 yuan from endowment insurance.
And with a 4-year-old son enrolled in a newly built kindergarten, Deng says she is no longer pursuing the matter of possible negligence in construction. "It's been a year (since the quake). I don't want to think of the past too much. We've got due compensation we have our livelihood to think about," she said.
"For me, this thing is over."