Shaken and Stirred Up
The aftermath of China's earthquake.
Jul 7, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 41 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
Dujiangyan City, Sichuan Province
Chinese superstition revolves around the magic of certain numbers, with 8 being a good luck number. Procuring mobile phone numbers or land lines with multiple "8s" in them can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. Perhaps not surprisingly, the opening of the Beijing Olympic Games will be on August 8--the eighth day of the eighth month of the eighth year of the new millennium (with ceremonies commencing at 8:08 P.M., local time).
So it has not gone unnoticed as a piece of cruel fate that the devastating Sichuan Province earthquake occurred a (supposedly) magical 88 days before the games. To add insult to injury, as a colleague's wife reminded me over dinner in a Chengdu restaurant, "if you add up the digits of the day and month of the earthquake--12 May (1+2+5)--you again get the number eight."
Despite these devastating portents, the people have pulled together to try and rebuild. But a backlash is brewing in the demands for accountability by parents of the thousands of children who died when schools collapsed during the quake. Shoddy construction that did not conform to building codes is why, they have charged, and they want to know who is responsible.
The Great Sichuan earthquake has officially been measured by China's Seismological Bureau as a magnitude 8 (another ill omen). The quake's epicenter was 50 miles northwest of Chengdu, the provincial capital, at a depth of 12 miles. One of the excuses made by local authorities in the province is that the building code calls for structures to be survivable only up to a 7 magnitude quake, so they cannot be held accountable for Mother Nature's having exceeded their code.
"Not good enough," is what the parents say. They have derided the building materials in the schools that collapsed as "tofu" instead of concrete. China's National Bureau of Corruption Prevention has promised to investigate allegations of bribery in the building of the schools, but no one is holding his breath waiting on the findings. Engineers examining the ruins and the parents of students killed have pointed to a lack of steel reinforcement in the concrete, and externally flamboyant designs at the expense of robust structures. These are all telltale signs that building funds ended up in someone's pocket.
Local officials were at first happy to thrust these grieving parents into the limelight to play on the world's sympathies (and secure as much aid as possible for rescue and rebuilding efforts). Now they are trying to avoid the prying eyes of the outside world and keep reporters from seeing or speaking to these same parents. Reporters from AP and other foreign news organizations were barred from a meeting between these parents and local government offices. The parents wanted the reporters in the meeting. The local government, backed up by a substantial police presence, won the argument, with correspondents being forcibly removed and detained.
Perhaps not coincidentally, 12 of these local officials were subsequently fired for dereliction of duty and misuse of earthquake relief funds. Chinese supervision minister Ma Wen stated that her department had received 1,178 complaints about the official response to the quake. Administrative sanctions were levied against 43 officials, including the 12 fired.
"Quite a number of the reports exposed the misuse of tents, food, and other relief supplies," she said. The hammer is being brought down by the central government in a not-so-subtle message to the local population: We are the "good guys"--bringing in the army and all other possible resources to help--and we are going to root out the "bad guys" in the local administration who created this problem.
This Beijing good/local politicians bad message may or may not resonate in Dujiangyan, the city closest to the epicenter of the quake--where three of the largest schools collapsed. Tens of thousands are now living in tent cities, their homes gone. Hundreds of heavily damaged, deserted buildings look like the aftermath of a nuclear war. From the street you can see family artwork still mounted on evacuated apartment walls.
"We will be in these tents at least three months and then in temporary housing for at least three years after that," I was told. On the day I visited the city the mosquitoes were miserable and the humidity worse. Young boys were scavenging the rubble of collapsed buildings looking for scrap metal to sell. Banners exhort the residents to "kill any rats you see to prevent spread of disease" and to "maintain good sanitation."
Rebuilding in this province could take the better part of a decade. The question is whether the local population will tolerate a long period of living in squalid conditions--their children still buried under rubble--without being stirred into more open rebellion against the local provincial government that they increasingly hold responsible for their misery.
Reuben F. Johnson writes on aerospace and foreign affairs.