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Grim Accounting

June 4, 2009

China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province
Directed by Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill
Produced by Jon Alpert, Peter Kwong, Michelle Mi, Matthew O’Neill, and Ming Xia
HBO Documentary Film, 2009
Running Time: 38 minutes
Mandarin with English subtitles

On May 12, 2008, a devastating earthquake struck Sichuan Province in south central China, killing nearly 88,000 people, including as many as 10,000 children,1 destroying numerous communities, and leaving millions homeless. For thousands of parents across the region, any sense of gratitude for the government’s initial quick response to the tragedy soon evaporated as a horrifying pattern emerged: thousands of classrooms had collapsed, burying children alive, while nearby government buildings remained standing. Most parents, due to China’s population control policy, lost their only child. In filming China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province, filmmakers Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill followed parents from several schools whose grieving turned to outrage as they demanded explanations from local government officials.

The film, which premiered on HBO on May 7, 2009, captures parents at one primary school where 127 students were killed, clutching framed photos of their dead children and sharing first hand accounts of the quake’s aftermath. They were forced to dig through the rubble using their hands and bury their children in homemade coffins, with tombstones hastily made from stones engraved with keys. One father wails at a pile of rubble for his 11-year old daughter, still missing ten days after the quake. In the rubble, parents discover not only proof of the “tofu construction” but the stirrings of political consciousness: they realize that much of this catastrophe could have been prevented were it not for mismanagement, corruption, and, ultimately, a lack of government accountability.

Fed up with the local government’s inadequate response, hundreds of anguished parents set out on a 70-mile march to the prefectural capital. Local officials  try to stop the marchers, including a local party secretary who drops to his knees, pleading with the protestors. The parents march on, forcing authorities to send inspectors, but this ultimately proves to be more for show than substance. As soon as engineers start testing  fallen concrete slabs, police block the film crew’s cameras and the area is suddenly off limits to press. One year has passed and the government has not released figures on the number of children who died or a report on shoddy school construction. Instead, parents have been harassed and the courts have rejected their lawsuits. In April 2009, an official document came to light that shows the Sichuan government banned evaluations of collapsed buildings.2 China’s Unnatural Disaster is a powerful reminder of the devastating consequences of corruption in China and an intimate portrait of parents determined to hold officials accountable.

For screening information, contact HBO Documentaries: 212-512-1000.
For DVDs, contact DCTV: 212-966-4510 x636.


1. On May 7, 2009, the head of Sichuan’s education department said that 5,335 students in the province were confirmed dead or missing while other estimates were much higher. Bai Xu, “A Total of 5,335 Students in Sichuan Dead or Missing from May 12 Earthquake,” Xinhua News Agency, May 7, 2009,; Andrew Jacobs, “Parents’ Grief Turns to Rage at Chinese Officials,” New York Times,May 28, 2008, ^

2. Raymond Li, “Sichuan bans review of collapsed schools,” South China Morning Post, April 24, 2009. ^