But their focus shifted when they found themselves unwelcome in what looked like a war zone. About 87,000 people, thousands of them children, died when they were buried beneath collapsed schools. And there was no apparent government rescue effort in place.
"The Chinese government tried to use the Sichuan earthquake as an opportunity to polish its image and to present to the global community a government that was very responsive and passionate," says College of Staten Island political science professor Ming Xia, a Sichuan native who served as translator. "We found a different theme; it was about a corrupt, irresponsible, also unaccountable, government."
Xia traveled to China with Peter Kwong, professor of Asian American studies, urban affairs and planning at Hunter College and of sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center, where Xia teaches international political economy.
On the second day, the crew - led by award-winning producers/directors Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill, with whom Kwong has worked on other films - stumbled onto a protest by parents who'd lost their children in school rubble and were marching on the provincial capital to demand answers about the buildings' shoddy construction. Because of China's one child policy, the majority of parents had lost their only child.
Xia, who speaks a local dialect but like Kwong has no family in the area, persuaded the grief-stricken parents to share their stories. Many described how their children, buried under debris, called from their cell phones crying for help. The rescue teams never came, so the parents dug for their children's bodies with bare hands.
"I really felt heartbroken," says Xia. "I often had tears when I was translating the film and screening it."
The parents' stories became the focus of the 38-minute HBO documentary. "China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province" premiered in the United States on May 7th , four days before the first anniversary of the disaster, and is available on DVD. Xia and Kwong are among the co-producers.
Alpert and O'Neill were denied visas to show the documentary at a film festival in China, but Xia says it was a big hit there even though the government didn't allow it to circulate; people uploaded it online and shared it.
Xia is proud of his work, although he's afraid to go back to China, where he's a faculty member at two universities. His crew members were detained and interrogated for several hours during their nine days there, and he's certain that he's on the regime's radar.
"Our presence was a threat to the Chinese government; this is why they tried to throw us out," he says.
It's not the first time Xia has defied the Chinese regime. At 16, he left Sichuan to study at Shanghai University and then became an assistant professor in the Department of International Politics at Fudan University in Shanghai. He taught courses on western political systems at a time when a democracy movement in China was on the rise.
In 1989, his students took part in pro-democracy demonstrations, and Xia was forced to choose between them and the Communist Party, to which professors were required to belong. His explicit support for his students and his disloyalty to the regime doomed his career. "I was accused as one of the 'black hands' in Chinese propaganda to manipulate and organize students," he says
Xia refused to "confess" his crimes to regain party membership. Instead he took the advice of a U.S. professor he met in Shanghai and left his country to start a new life in America. He arrived at Temple University in 1991 to pursue his Ph.D. in political science and in 1997 joined the faculty at CSI.
"As I stepped on the soil of the U.S., I told myself that I would not turn back," says Xia. "I believe that the U.S. is the best country in the world, and it's my home. I have never regretted my decision to leave China for America. I have never regretted my refusal to make self-criticism. I believe that I sided with the right direction of history. I have confidence that I will see China become democratic in my lifetime."
He wants his students to pay close attention to world affairs and to be able to interpret political events. "I want them to be international: to have a cosmopolitan attitude toward learning and life," says Xia, who is the author of several books on China and is working on one about the Sichuan earthquake as well as a trilogy about China's criminal underworld.