Dujiangyan City, Sichuan Province - Chinese superstition revolves around the magic of certain numbers, with 8
being a good luck number. Procuring mobile phone numbers or land lines with
multiple "8s" in them can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the opening of the Beijing Olympic Games will be on
August 8--the eighth day of the eighth month of the eighth year of the new
millennium (with ceremonies commencing at 8:08 P.M., local time).
So it has not gone unnoticed as a piece of cruel fate that the devastating
Sichuan Province earthquake occurred a (supposedly) magical 88 days before the
games. To add insult to injury, as a colleague's wife reminded me over dinner
in a Chengdu restaurant, "if you add up the digits of the day and month of
the earthquake--12 May (1+2+5)--you again get the number eight."
Despite these devastating portents, the people have pulled together to try
and rebuild. But a backlash is brewing in the demands for accountability by
parents of the thousands of children who died when schools collapsed during the
quake. Shoddy construction that did not conform to building codes is why, they
have charged, and they want to know who is responsible.
The Great Sichuan earthquake has officially been measured by China's
Seismological Bureau as a magnitude 8 (another ill omen). The quake's epicenter
was 50 miles northwest of Chengdu, the provincial capital, at a depth of 12
miles. One of the excuses made by local authorities in the province is that the
building code calls for structures to be survivable only up to a 7 magnitude
quake, so they cannot be held accountable for Mother Nature's having exceeded
"Not good enough," is what the parents say. They have derided the
building materials in the schools that collapsed as "tofu" instead of
concrete. China's National Bureau of Corruption Prevention has promised to
investigate allegations of bribery in the building of the schools, but no one
is holding his breath waiting on the findings. Engineers examining the ruins
and the parents of students killed have pointed to a lack of steel
reinforcement in the concrete, and externally flamboyant designs at the expense
of robust structures. These are all telltale signs that building funds ended up
in someone's pocket.
Local officials were at first happy to thrust these grieving parents into
the limelight to play on the world's sympathies (and secure as much aid as
possible for rescue and rebuilding efforts). Now they are trying to avoid the
prying eyes of the outside world and keep reporters from seeing or speaking to
these same parents. Reporters from AP and other foreign news organizations were
barred from a meeting between these parents and local government offices. The
parents wanted the reporters in the meeting. The local government, backed up by
a substantial police presence, won the argument, with correspondents being
forcibly removed and detained.
Perhaps not coincidentally, 12 of these local officials were subsequently
fired for dereliction of duty and misuse of earthquake relief funds. Chinese
supervision minister Ma Wen stated that her department had received 1,178
complaints about the official response to the quake. Administrative sanctions
were levied against 43 officials, including the 12 fired.
"Quite a number of the reports exposed the misuse of
tents, food, and other relief supplies," she said. The hammer is being
brought down by the central government in a not-so-subtle message to the local
population: We are the "good guys"--bringing in the army and all
other possible resources to help--and we are going to root out the "bad
guys" in the local administration who created this problem.
This Beijing good/local politicians bad message may or may not resonate in
Dujiangyan, the city closest to the epicenter of the quake--where three of the
largest schools collapsed. Tens of thousands are now living in tent cities,
their homes gone. Hundreds of heavily damaged, deserted buildings look like the
aftermath of a nuclear war. From the street you can see family artwork still
mounted on evacuated apartment walls.
"We will be in these tents at least three months and then in temporary
housing for at least three years after that," I was told. On the day I
visited the city the mosquitoes were miserable and the humidity worse. Young
boys were scavenging the rubble of collapsed buildings looking for scrap metal
to sell. Banners exhort the residents to "kill any rats you see to prevent
spread of disease" and to "maintain good sanitation."
Rebuilding in this province could take the better part of a decade. The
question is whether the local population will tolerate a long period of living
in squalid conditions--their children still buried under rubble--without being
stirred into more open rebellion against the local provincial government that
they increasingly hold responsible for their misery.