A year on, road is still rocky for survivors

Devastation...Zheng Rentian at what used to be the vegetable market in Beichuan. It is now closed  as is the rest of the town.

Devastation...Zheng Rentian at what used to be the vegetable market in Beichuan. It is now closed as is the rest of the town. Photo: Sanghee Liu

But Chinese workers are sprucing up towns to impress politicians, writes John Garnaut in Beichuan.

IT IS nearly a year since the mountains on each side of Beichuan sheared in half, spilling over the southern corner of the town and pounding the northern streets with rocks the size of asteroids. In minutes the town of 20,000 people was battered into a tangled mess of apartment block detritus, flattened buses, bodies squashed and dismembered like insects.

The thousand voices that once pleaded for help from within twisted buildings have long since fallen silent. At least half the population of the town died. But this mass graveyard has been cleansed and the primordial scale of the catastrophe is clearer than it was.

Bulldozers have cleared the higher roads while the mangled lower streets have been blanketed with metres of dirt after torrential rains. Glacial rivers of mud and rock are swallowing the city, from the ground up, as if completing the burial the earthquake began.

At every birthday, festival and anniversary, a humble and quietly spoken man, Zheng Rentian, drives his minibus to pay his respects at the hillside that buried his father and 10 relatives. He burns candles, incense and money in their honour and sometimes lights firecrackers to ward off mischievous spirits.

Zheng slows his van as he passes Beichuan Middle School. His nephew had shot out the door to safety when he felt the first pieces of ceiling strike his skin. Parents of the 600 students who were killed say the building was yet another shoddy school made of cement and steel.

Zheng eases his van past vendors selling earthquake tourist memorabilia. He gets out, flashes his residence card at a new gate and security fence decked with razor wire, and descends by foot to the main Beichuan town below.

Both of Zheng's parents were out of the house at 2.28pm on Monday, May 12 when their village disappeared. Zheng stops to show us where the mountainside used to be. "My mother was one step away from a falling rock that would have killed her," says Zheng.

"My father was in a restaurant below, underneath where that tree is sticking out. My 11 relatives at that table and a thousand other people would still be here today if that mountain had not collapsed on them."

For the Chinese Communist Party, the Sichuan earthquake that left 70,000 people dead and 18,000 missing was an opportunity to show how it had evolved from its cruel and callous past. On May 14 last year, at the top of the descent into Beichuan town, Herald sources watched a megaphone-wielding Premier, Wen Jiabao, provide a style of responsive and humane leadership that Chinese people might never have known before.

The Government has channelled vast resources for reconstruction. Obliterated mountain roads have been re-laid. Damaged dams have been reinforced. Adequate temporary housing has been provided. Peasants in remote corners of the county are busily rebuilding. There are no signs that earthquake victims lack food or shelter. The local economy appears to be booming.

But the earthquake also revealed how far China is from the nation it wants to be.

On May 14 and May 15 the Herald watched People's Liberation Army soldiers loitering aimlessly and looting goods from shattered shops, while the cries of trapped citizens rang out from buildings nearby.

Of tens of thousands of soldiers in Beichuan in the days after the quake, the only ones we saw raise a sweat were a dozen who jostled in front of Premier Wen as they rushed to an imaginary rescue for the benefit of a CCTV camera.

Thousands died who should have been saved. Yet CCTV has played endless slow-motion footage of heroic soldiers at the service of the common people. For many in the Communist Party, the earthquake was primarily a propaganda opportunity.

The state revealed deeply rooted callousness and insecurity as it silenced grieving parents. In Beichuan County, residents are refusing to sign compensation agreements because they have watched work teams and village leaders siphon funds and trade favours with other rich and powerful residents.

Animosity is directed at local officials although, of course, it is Beijing that has chosen to preserve China's vast pyramid of unchecked administrative power.

Five weeks ago locals heard that Premier Wen was likely to return for the anniversary on Tuesday. Hundreds of workers were immediately enlisted to widen and beautify the highway from Mianyang airport.

The roadside is being lined with instant grass and planted with fully grown trees, while workers are adding final touches of paint to the road-facing walls of newly built homes.

Neat model villages, designed in the local Qiang style, dot the flat land that can be easily spied from the tinted windows of a passing cavalcade.

Inside Beichuan, Zheng Rentian guides us through the town he remembers. On the right, utterly obscured by a rock slide, was the car wash where Zheng used to clean his van. All of the workers ran out to open ground when they heard the mountain crumbling above them and none of them was killed.

We overhear a mother telling her young daughter how a crowd had rushed out only to be obliterated by boulders hurtling from the other direction.

Zheng says he saw 100 battered corpses here. But one survivor was his niece, Zheng Juhong, who had been trapped inside her mobile phone stall.

"That evening I just hugged myself tightly against the aftershocks and cried out for my mother," she says.

In the morning she heard people outside rescue someone else in the building next to her. But they could not hear her cries.

Later two soldiers heard her and pushed through a piece of pipe to provide fresh drinking water. She pleaded with them not to go. But they explained: "Without orders from above we cannot start that kind of rescue." Later two volunteers came, one of whom she recognised, and they worked with two firefighters without a break for eight hours until they hauled her out.

At the centre of town we pass the other campus of Beichuan Middle School, where officials sent their children. The school was obliterated by a rock slide and 1000 children lost their lives.

Workers are now hanging political banners and erecting huge steel support frames for tilted buildings for when visiting leaders arrive for the cameras on Tuesday.

Zheng Rentian points to the crushed bakery where his ever-smiling sister used to work. He had assumed that she had been killed.

But his sister Zheng Xiaobi had being delivering bread to a nearby town and miraculously survived. "I was hurrying back across the river on my motorbike when the bridge started wavering so hard I could hardly balance," she says.

"A crack opened up in front of me and I accelerated to try to get across. Two old people were walking the other way towards me. I could see their faces as they screamed and I felt myself falling."

She does not know how she survived, falling 20 metres with a collapsing bridge without a helmet. When she regained consciousness she heard the old man grieving for his friend. She tried to help but her ribs were broken and she could not move.

Zheng Xiaobi now works at a new bakery in Anchang town. It was her son, Zheng Rentian's nephew, who was one of the few who survived the school collapse above the town. Whenever he feels a tremor he runs outside and often refuses to sleep indoors.

But Zheng Xiaobi has come to see herself as lucky. "I was someone who loved to laugh and smile," she says. "I lost my smile for half a year but now I'm coming back to normal."