Talking Point

May they rest in peace

The one-year anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake sparks debate

A picture of a girl, an earthquake victim, is seen at the ruins of earthquake-hit Beichuan county, Sichuan Province

“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” is one Dubya sound bite that will survive the former president’s departure to leisurely Texan retirement.

Of course, it turned out Brownie wasn’t doing much of a job at all.

In fact, despite his presidential commendation, Michael Brown would soon resign as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), widely seen to have botched the response to Hurricane Katrina in early September 2005.

Whereas Bush and Brown are commonly cast as bunglers, Beijing’s response to its own most recent natural disaster – last year’s Sichuan earthquake – has tended to be regarded more favourably

The positive comparison is being drawn again this week, a year on from the disaster.

So, Beijing can be pleased with its overall response?

The earthquake wrought damage and death on a much wider scale than the hurricane. The official toll in Sichuan is now close to 90,000 dead or missing, well over 40 times the Katrina count.

But the government reaction was a massive improvement on its performance in an earlier catastrophe. In 1976, the Tangshan earthquake in Hebei province killed at least a quarter of a million people. But with Chairman Mao close to death, and the apparatus of government convulsed by political intrigue, the official response was puny and poorly led. All offers of international support were refused outright, and a media clampdown on news from the disaster zone locked it off from the outside world.

This time around, however, the central government has received international plaudits for its action, something that the Chinese press has been keen to highlight in the “one-year-on” editorials this week.

Premier Wen Jiabao was on a flight into the earthquake zone within an hour and a half of news of the disaster. And he stayed in Sichuan for most of the following week, visiting the homeless and the wounded, and encouraging those involved in the relief effort. His efforts (and some much publicised tears) earned the senior leader kudos from most domestic onlookers.

But was the relief effort a successful one?

Yes, although it was hampered by the often-mountainous terrain in the province, as well as poor weather conditions.

There were more than 100,000 troops on the ground in Sichuan within three days. Tented towns were soon established, and the electricity supply was reconnected. Emergency payments were handed out to survivors. China’s largest ever non-combat airlift – 150 aircraft – brought aid to all but the most remote areas.

Another mobilisation was a less official one. Fundraising campaigns were soon being organised across the country, especially amongst China’s emerging middle-class. Foreign multinationals thought to have been stingy in their own contributions were chastised as “international iron roosters” (a bird that will not give up a single feather) and boycotted.

Thousands of volunteers also headed for the earthquake zone to offer help, many in vehicle convoys from neighbouring provinces. Police had to blockade roads, to prevent some towns getting clogged with outsiders.

In fact, at a time when most Chinese nationals were bewildered by the international media coverage of the disastrous Olympic torch relays, the earthquake released a great outpouring of national emotion. Official ceremonies of remembrance for the dead were punctuated with “Come on China!” chants.

What did the Chinese media say?

The initial press coverage was vigorous, especially in the early days after the disaster. The Los Angeles Times was even to praise the reporting as “democratic” in its scope.

But news of the earthquake’s impact then began to focus on particular themes. A key one was corruption, as the collapse of at least 7,000 classrooms and school dormitory rooms became the lead story, especially when buildings adjacent to collapsed government schools often seemed to survive the worst of the devastation. The suspicion was that students had died in structurally-flawed “tofu” buildings because of the greed and negligence of officials.

As anger increased, restrictions on media coverage of the issue were tightened up. Foreign reporters speculate that a number of senior officials, who served in Sichuan at earlier points in their careers may have preferred to see the matter rest.

But this has not been an easy task, as activists (and parents of the dead children) have campaigned to uncover corrupt practices.

Last week, a government report on the student death count (5,335 children dead or missing, with another 546 seriously injured or disabled) seemed to be an attempt to respond to the anger of campaigners. But the statistic (just over 6% of total disaster fatalities, when the proportion of the mainland population under 14 is closer to 19%) has failed to convince everyone.

Criticism of the government is not far from the surface in other areas too. Despite official restrictions on discussion of the topic, a group of geologists has continued to claim that construction of local dams could have contributed to instability in the quake area, especially the Zipingpu dam about five kilometres from the quake’s epicentre.

Griping about the progress of reconstruction efforts has also seeped into the press. Local media has reported on concerns about toxic materials in pre-fabricated temporary housing, for instance, as well as problems with the clearance of the estimated 300 million tonnes of waste left in the earthquake’s wake.

So a mixed scorecard then?

A government paper on contingency planning for future disasters released this week indicated that more work will be completed as a result of lessons learned. The China Daily notes the importance of such preparation – the country is prone to almost every type of natural catastrophe, barring volcanic eruption.

The suspicion surrounding the collapsed schools points to future challenges too, especially as there is still so much work to be done in Sichuan. The provincial authorities have set a goal of finishing 85% of the reconstruction projects – including 1.3 million new houses – by September next year.

A heck of a job ahead, indeed.


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