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China's massive postquake tasks

Still short 2 million tents, it must also rebuild homes and jobs for 5 million.

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Massive effort: A month after the earthquake in Sichuan Province, China is rushing to house survivors. So far, 107,000 temporary houses (above, in Mianzhu) and 1.2 million tents have been provided.


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Now comes the hard part.

The Chinese government has won plaudits at home and abroad for its quick and efficient response to the earthquake that devastated large parts of Sichuan Province one month ago, leaving 85,000 people dead or missing.

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Bringing the area back to life, however – restoring houses and jobs to 5 million homeless survivors – poses new challenges that are likely to stretch officials' ingenuity well into the next decade, experts here warn.

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"The most difficult thing for the government will be resettling victims," says Peng Zongchao, a crisis management expert at Tsingua University's Public Policy Institute in Beijing. "They will have to rebuild 3 million houses at least."

For the time being the authorities are putting off that monstrous task. Having averted the danger of a major flood by draining the biggest quake lake, they are now pouring all their efforts into keeping victims watered, fed, and healthy while they throw up temporary housing anywhere they can find a flat piece of land.

They are moving fast: 107,000 units were ready for occupation by last Friday, according to official figures, while another 250,000 were in the pipeline. It will probably be many months, however, before enough of this sort of housing has been built, given the numbers of people needing shelter.

In the meantime there are too few tents. Only 1.2 million have been delivered to the earthquake zone so far, the government says, well short of the 3 million it has said are needed, apparently because Chinese manufacturers cannot make them fast enough and no international organization can provide the number needed.

A month after the quake, continuing aftershocks mean that very few people have returned to their homes, even to ones left standing. "Our houses look fine from the outside but they are very badly damaged inside, so people are still sleeping on the streets," says Chen Shoujun, a volunteer relief worker in Jiangyou.

Some people have returned to work – the government says 80 percent of damaged factories have reopened – but the economy in the quake zone is still basically at a standstill, making jobs hard to find.

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At the moment, refugees say, the mood in the tent camps that have sprung up along every road in the region seems stoic. "People are getting over their grief about the earthquake and starting to face reality because we don't have any alternative," says Xiao Xinqing, a mother living with her small boy in a communal tent by the stadium in Mianzhu. "We have to get on with our lives."

That attitude is not so widespread among the thousands of parents still angry at the way their children died in schools that collapsed, they believe, because the buildings were shoddily built by corrupt local officials.

Clearly afraid of their criticism, the Chinese government has banned newspapers from reporting on the issue, according to Chinese journalists, and on Sunday, police barred bereaved parents from gathering at Juyuan Middle School where they had planned to observe the 35th day of mourning, a significant moment in local tradition.

Over the weekend, a photo of a skinny, twisted piece of steel rebar – hinting at poor construction at Juyuan Middle School where it was taken – disappeared from a public exhibition of quake artifacts, where it had been prominently displayed. Exhibit organizers did not provide an explanation.

Nearly 300 students died when Juyuan Middle School collapsed, making it a center of bereaved parents' anger. "Local officials ... gave us 10,000 RMB ($1,430) per child, but I cannot accept this," says Mrs. Song, who lost a child when the building fell. "I am over 40 years old, I cannot handle this blow. I don't know what to do next."

In a retreat from the unusual official openness that marked the first two weeks after the earthquake, when local and foreign reporters were allowed to go anywhere they pleased, police have begun turning foreign journalists back from towns where schools collapsed, often on apparently spurious safety grounds.

Police have also made it harder for independent nongovernmental organizations to deliver aid to quake victims in a number of places.

The official mood, to judge by the state-run press and a ceremony held last week at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing to honor heroes of the relief and rescue operation, is one of self-congratulation.

This has raised doubts about initial impressions that the flood of volunteers who rushed to the quake zone to help, independently of the government or ruling Communist Party, might represent civil society asserting itself.

"The party does not see any need to adjust or reevaluate its role" says Russell Leigh Moses, a political analyst here. "It simply takes credit for everything that is going on."

At the same time, however, "even though the state still directs the process," argues Dali Yang, head of the East Asia Institute at the University of Singapore, the volunteer spirit and the Internet debates over the government's role indicates "a much more self-aware and reflective population that bodes well for continuing action."

The government's new nervousness about free press reporting and independent citizen action "may be a step backwards, but there were two steps forward" says one European diplomat. "This is progress. The envelope has been pushed."

On the ground, urban residents seem resigned to a life in tents and prefabricated housing for the foreseeable future. Longer-term permanent solutions to their problems "could take five years, or longer" says Professor Peng.

Farmers, however, are anxious to return to their fields that need harvesting, and many are frustrated at local officials' insistence that they should group together in temporary government-built settlements. "Most of them want to go back to the places they used to live" as soon as possible, says Ma Wanli, a relief volunteer focusing on the problems villagers are facing. "The problem is that government policy is unclear."

In Mianzhu, for example, Mr. Ma says, the local government has offered farmers 200 RMB ($114) per family member to help them build temporary houses near their fields if they insist on going home. But that subsidy would pay for only 36 sq. ft. a person, too little to live in.

And there is another problem, Ma explains. "The price of bricks has gone up 25 percent in the last week, and it is still rising. We just cannot tell how much construction is going to cost."

Zhang Yajun contributed reporting.