HONG KONG - As a measure of China's progress as a nation, the government's
response to the devastating Sichuan earthquake, which occurred a year ago this
Tuesday, has provided a crucible. There have been problems, big problems, but
so far the country's leadership has passed this exacting test.
True, an investigation should have been launched into the disproportionate
number of schools that collapsed in the 8-magnitude quake, and the
still-grieving parents of school children who died or were maimed deserve far
better than the stonewalling they have received from officials in the
southwestern province. Some of the parents have been harassed and even detained
for going public with their complaints. Their treatment, as well as the
official refusal to even consider the possibility of shoddy construction of
schools, is nothing short of a scandal.
The scandal continued last week when the head of Sichuan's education
department, Tu Wentao, finally released an official student death toll of
5,335, which was greeted with widespread skepticism. Ai Weiwei, a well-known
artist who launched his own campaign to compile a list of students who died,
dismissed the official count as "far from accurate".
At the same time, provincial authorities accused foreign reporters in Sichuan
of "inciting" crowds to protest against the government and the Foreign
Correspondents' Club of China issued a statement saying several reporters have
been harassed, detained and beaten in the countdown to the May 12th
Beyond the uproar over "tofu" schools and the clampdown on foreign reporters,
there is evidence that the quake might have been triggered by the construction
of the 156-meter Zipingu dam, which is only 550 meters from the fault line. Two
academic papers published last year, one in China and the other in the US,
suggest such a link, but government scientists have dismissed them as
pseudo-science and personal opinion.
The Chinese study - the work of five scientists, two of whom work for the China
Earthquake Administration - appeared in Geology and Seismology, a journal
sponsored by the central government's earthquake authority. The American study
was conducted by a scientist at Columbia University.
Amid such controversies, the reconstruction effort is inching forward in
Sichuan and neighboring provinces also damaged by the quake. A year later most
of the work remains undone, and most of the more than five million people who
lost their homes continue to live in desperate straits.
It is easy to criticize. What critics often fail to note, however, is the
colossal nature of the challenge in Sichuan. The US government badly bungled
its response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. That was small potatoes in
comparison to what the Chinese government faces in Sichuan, where the entire
infrastructure of several towns was destroyed.
The province is physically larger than Germany, accounting for 5.1% of China's
total land mass. More than 87 million people live there. So the cold
mathematics of the quake tragedy - counting the deaths, displaced people,
roads, houses, schools and other buildings damaged or destroyed - is simply
staggering. According to the central government - which may be low-balling
these figures - 68,712 people were killed and 17,921 are still considered
missing. Many more were injured and millions displaced.
A total of 3,340 schools have been damaged or destroyed. Nearly 300 kilometers
of highway were laid to waste and more than 1,700 kilometers of rural roads
must be repaired. The list goes on.
Sichuan was, and a year later still is, an immense mess. But homes, schools and
roads are being rebuilt, people are being relocated and the province is coming
back to life. By the time the reconstruction effort ends, Beijing will have
spent US$150 billion. No doubt the central government's stated goal of
completing this gargantuan task within three years is overly optimistic, but
there is no question that a full-on, if sometimes flawed, effort is under way.
This is a very different China than the country that endured a similar monster
shock on July 28, 1976 under the totalitarian regime of Mao Zedong, who was on
his deathbed at the time. That 7.8-magnitude quake struck the city of Tangshan
in Hebei province and was followed by a prolonged silence from the Communist
Party leadership while the world waited for news of the disaster.
Even after Mao's death in September that year, Beijing fudged the casualty
figures and refused all international assistance, insisting on self-reliance.
In the end, the party acknowledged 242,000 deaths. But the final death tally
remains a matter of historical debate, with some estimates as high as 700,000.
By contrast, the Sichuan earthquake was initially met with unprecedented
openness by Chinese leaders, who allowed the international press to report on
the catastrophe and dispatched Premier Wen Jiabao to Sichuan's Wenchuan county,
the quake's epicenter, to commiserate with survivors.
It was then that Wen cemented his reputation as the "people's premier",
creating a more caring public face for a government that for too long was seen
to be aloof from the struggles of the common people.
Crouching in the rubble of a collapsed elementary school, state media reported,
Wen comforted a trapped student with these words: "This is Grandpa Wen Jiabao.
Hang on child; we will rescue you."
Since then, the rescue effort has been slow but steady. And, as billions of
dollars in both government and foreign aid are pumped into the province,
worries of widespread corruption have so far proven unfounded.
Sichuan officials report that their first priority in the reconstruction plan
has been rural areas, where nearly one million homes have been built - 98.8% of
those planned, officials claim. In the cities, authorities admit, construction
of only 138,000 homes has begun, about 44% of those planned, and a mere 33,000
have been completed.
Nevertheless, authorities vow to complete 85% of all reconstruction by
September of 2010.
All these figures, even the unimpressive ones, are indeed cooked, and the
promises of provincial authorities are less reliable than those one might hear
from the average used-car salesman. That said, it is clear that the central
government, from President Hu Jintao on down, has lit a fire under provincial
leaders and they are responding to the heat.
Slowly, Sichuan is coming back to life and the new China has committed to this
reconstruction effort in ways unimaginable in the past. Some of the old habits
of denial, obfuscation and repression remain, and that is truly a shame.
Suffering in Sichuan continues on a massive scale. And there are too many flaws
to count in the response to that suffering by China's vast, often incompetent
But Beijing's commitment to rebuilding Sichuan should not be questioned. In the
end, amid epic tragedy, this is another Chinese story of hope.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at