DUJIANGYAN, China Police officers here on Tuesday surrounded more than 100 parents protesting shoddy school construction and mourning the deaths of thousands of children during the recent earthquake.
The police dragged away several crying mothers and removed some journalists trying to report on the event, according to witnesses and photographs of the protest.
The attempt to snuff out the protest was the strongest sign so far of the government's growing impatience with public airing of grievances over unsafe school construction.
A standoff between the parents, many carrying framed photos of their dead children, and the police officers, dressed in black uniforms, lasted for several hours. In the end, the parents walked away.
Some said they felt intimidated and frustrated. "Because so many police surrounded us, we couldn't do anything, so we went home," said a female protester, Li, who had lost a teenage daughter.
Dujiangyan was the scene of several school collapses when the earthquake struck in the afternoon of May 12. Across the hardest-hit areas of mountainous Sichuan province in southwest China, parents have been demanding investigations into why so many schools collapsed even as, in many cases, surrounding buildings remained standing.
About 10,000 schoolchildren are estimated to have been killed in the earthquake, whose confirmed death toll rose on Tuesday to more than 69,107. The government lists 18,230 people as missing.
The growing number of protests over school collapses has emerged as the greatest challenge to government officials here in Sichuan, and the grieving parents have become a potent symbol to many Chinese of people victimized by corruption.
In some instances, local officials have begged parents to quiet down and accept financial compensation for the loss of their children. But the recent spate of government intimidation and censorship shows that the civic empowerment that has flourished in the aftermath of the earthquake could unravel.
The protest on Tuesday morning took place outside a five-story courthouse on a wide boulevard in central Dujiangyan. It was organized by parents who lost their children in the collapse of Juyuan Middle School, in a suburb. Most of the school's 900 students were killed in a deluge of bricks and concrete, even though buildings around the school remained largely intact. Rescue workers and soldiers scoured the rubble for days afterward, but few survivors were pulled out.