THE DEVESTATION AND DEATH toll from last week's earthquake centered in China's Sichuan
province continues to rise. The quake registered a 7.9 on the Richter Scale
(and has been reported as an 8.0 magnitude on some Chinese television
networks--roughly equivalent to a 600 megaton explosion) and is the worst in China in three
decades. The death toll is officially over 34,000 and rising by the hour, and
some reports list as many as 100,000 persons still missing.
But long after the thousands are dead and buried, China will be coping with two major
issues that are the long-term fallout from this horrific human tragedy
One is that the corruption that is endemic with construction projects in
almost any dictatorship has turned out to be a casebook example of how
bribe-taking and the general greed of local authorities in China is
worsening--and showing just how catastrophic the consequences of these
practices can be.
In the city of Dujiangyan, which is closest
to the quake's epicenter, the UK's
Guardian newspaper reports residents there furious over the shoddy
workmanship and substandard materials used in many of the buildings that
collapsed around their families. Many of them blame local officials for selling
off the high quality materials that should have been used in these buildings
and putting the money in their pockets. The same government functionaries then
signed off on certifications that these structures were built according to
local codes and ordnances, even thought that they knew them to be incapable of
surviving even small tremors.
"The contractors can't have been qualified. It's a 'tofu' [soft and
shoddy] building. Please, help us release this news," one local resident
pleaded with the Guardian's correspondent.
City residents were particularly angered by the collapse of the Juyuan High
School, pointing out that this much newer
building folded like a house of cards while considerably older structures--most
conspicuously local PLA offices and other government buildings--were left
"About 450 [students] were inside, in nine classes and it collapsed
completely from the top to the ground. It didn't fall over; it was almost like
an explosion . . . why isn't there money to build a good school for our
kids?" shouted several at the site. "Chinese officials are too
corrupt and bad. These buildings outside have been here for 20 years and didn't
collapse--the school was only 10 years old. They took the money from
investment, so they took the lives of hundreds of kids. They have money for
prostitutes and second wives but they don't have money for our children. This
is not a natural disaster--this is done by humans."
Other news outlets reported that at the same school site some of the same
locals present took out their frustrations on Chinese troops that had been sent
in to try and dig out collapsed buildings as part of the relief effort.
Soldiers were told to go away and that "we do not need you here."
To put this into perspective, one should remember that these provincial
Chinese cities are not like Beijing or Shanghai, where the local
populations have long become accustomed to seeing large numbers of foreign
expats, nor are they as cosmopolitan in their outlook. For people in such
places not to shun contact with foreigner reporters, but instead seek them out
and ask that the international press denounce their local party officials--and
at the same time tell military units participating in the rescue operation to
get lost--is no small measure of the anger that the earthquake survivors are
What has taken place over the last decade--and the reason
that 10-year-old buildings collapsed and 20-year-old ones did not--is that
"each generation of Chinese leaders in the central government is
successively weaker than the previous generation," said a Beijing-based
analyst. "Local authorities feel increasingly emboldened to act in their
own personal, self-interests and are far less afraid to take bribes and engage
in other abuses of their position. All of these feeds the resentments of the local
But as furious as the people living in Sichuan province are there is an
entity that has even less to be happy about--the People's Liberation Army Air
Significant damage has been done to China's
defense industry by the earthquake, specifically the Chengdu
aerospace complex that is just northwest of the city and comprises a large
production facility, the largest military aircraft design center in all of China, and a
jet engine production plant. This conglomerate designed and now produces the
Jian-10 (J-10)/FC-20 single-engine medium weight fighter that is considered to
be the most advanced in China's inventory, and the FC-1/JF-17 lightweight
fighter that is produced in cooperation with Pakistan.
Like many Chinese and Russian production centers that are located far from
major cities like Moscow, Beijing,
or Shanghai, Chengdu is also dotted with multiple, smaller
defense enterprises that design or produce many of the on-board systems that
actually make the modern-day fighter aircraft effective in combat. Among these
are the chief Chinese design centre for airborne electronic warfare systems and
radar warning receivers.
This enterprise, the Southwest China Research Institute of Electronic
Equipment, houses the AC999 Electronic Warfare Analysis Center, which is one of
the more important laboratories for all branches of the PLA. Its function is to
collect, analyze and interpret all varieties of electronic emission (ELINT)
signals and then distribute the results of that analysis as a finished
intelligence product to commands and the user community within the PLA.
Analysis of adversary electronic emissions and development of
countermeasures to neutralise them is among the most sensitive data that exists
within any military establishment. It is also critical to the survival of
aircraft and other platforms in an age of advanced radars and other sensors.
Damage or loss of this facility could pose real problems for the PLA's future
plans for modernization.
However, chances are that these defense industrial establishments were built
to a higher standard and suffered less damage than the schools, apartment
houses, and other buildings that have been seen in television broadcasts since
the quake struck. But, how many skilled specialists or personnel critical to
these enterprises who may have been lost in the quake is another issue.
One of the most important Chinese research centers that is reported to have
incurred significant damage is the China Aerodynamics Research and Development
Centre (CARDC) in Mianyang, which is not far from Chengdu.
CARDC was built with excessive paranoia about security and survivability
from being attacked from the air in mind, so some of its wind tunnels and other
facilities are located underground. Mianyang is even closer to the epicenter of
the quake than Chengdu--and
powerful earthquakes destroy any underground structure--so these facilities are
now damaged to the point where they may be irreparable and must be rebuilt.
This could take years and is a considerable setback for Chinese aeronautical
No government could do in the way of enforcing
building codes or mandating use of exotic, shock absorbing materials that could
create totally earthquake-proof designs. There is no certainty involved in
designing something that can be impervious to the whims of Mother Nature. But
what is certain is that the increasing corruption among local party and
government officials in China
has conspired to exacerbate the consequences of an already massive human