published Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

Swansbrough: A Tragic Memorial

By Bob Swansbrough

Over the three-day Dragon Boat Festival national holiday (June 14-16), one of my students took me to visit his hometown in Sichuan Province. We then drove to the nearby city of Hanwang, struck hard by the disastrous 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Hanwang is located about 50 miles northwest from Chengdu, the provincial capital where I’ve been teaching. The earthquake killed about 70,000 people in this western province of China, with 18,000 still missing—presumed buried under the twisted steel and concrete rubble.

The Hanwang city leaders decided to leave parts of the ruined city untouched as a memorial to those who died. The site poignantly highlighted to me and other visitors the devastating damage of the May 12, 2008, earthquake, measured at 8.0 on the Richter scale. The clock on the city’s bell tower eerily stopped at the exact moment of the tremor—2:28 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon. Students were in classrooms, businessmen in their offices and mothers and grandparents home with young children when their lives dramatically changed.

This rural Sichuan city, while not affluent, was a sizeable city by Western standards, with many six-story apartment buildings and a busy business section. A military factory producing turbines, destroyed but later rebuilt miles away, provided many jobs. Government office buildings caved in, apartment buildings pancaked downward, and hospitals and clinics buckled from the powerful quake.

But most tragically, about 7,000 schools in Sichuan Province collapsed. In one Hanwang school, 700 students died in their classrooms. Initially, the executive vice governor Wei Hong confirmed that 19,065 schoolchildren had died. The Reuters news service estimated that about 9,000 children were killed by the earthquake. However, on May 7, 2009, a year later, the Chinese government officially declared that 5,446 students died in the Sichuan earthquake.

The number of schools fatally damaged by the earthquake created an emotional and political firestorm, fueled by parents questioning why more public schools collapsed than nearby businesses, government structures and apartment buildings. Indeed, they blamed the fate of the schools on so-called “tofu construction”—school buildings privately built at minimal cost without regard for safety. Parents charged that corrupt local government officials had failed to inspect and insist that the construction comply with national earthquake-resistance regulations.

On Thursday, the day after the quake, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao visited the region to express the central government’s sympathy and financial support. President Hu Jintao came the next day. The scale of the destruction and the question about corrupt local officials ignoring school safety construction standards, made the situation politically sensitive—especially on the eve of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The tragic loss of children was magnified by China’s one-child policy. Hanwang parents were offered compensation totaling $8,800 and a per-parent pension of nearly $5,600. However, grieving parents had to agree that they would not press legal claims or engage in political actions. Subsequently, family planning centers surgically helped some parents reverse sterilization procedures.

The government has now built a “new city” for Hanwang, with showcase apartment buildings, a police station, post office and—a tax office. New trees have been planted. Large red banners thank the government and party for their assistance. The city of Beijing made a major financial commitment toward Sichuan reconstruction, with new schools and roads being funded and named after the capital city.

As in any natural disaster, many acts of courage and sacrifice occurred, motivated by a compassion for the victims of the earthquake. I’ve heard stories of Sichuan University students and other students from around China rushing to the area to help in the rescue and aid work.

My visit to Hanwang came two years after the May 2008 disaster. I particularly admire and respect the resilience of the survivors. Many residents still live in temporary housing or make-do shelters as the government tries to meet the needs of millions of Sichuan people made homeless by the horrendous earthquake. Small businesses operate under tarps, attempting to restore what was a thriving market area.

Foreign governments and many non-governmental organizations have worked with the Chinese authorities to help rebuild the area, but the challenge persists. The reconstruction will probably take 2-4 more years with much more Chinese government investment to restore this western China city—only one of those devastated by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

But the Chinese people have survived over 5,000 years from other natural disasters, famine, wars and invasions. I have great confidence in their resiliency after this terrible tragedy. They grieve, express anger, work hard and fatalistically accept the ups and downs of fate—as they have for millenniums.

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