Sichuan crawls back to life
By Kent Ewing

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 anniversary.

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 bureaucracy.

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