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China's massive postquake tasks

Still short 2 million tents, it must also rebuild homes and jobs for 5 million.

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Nearly 300 students died when Juyuan Middle School collapsed, making it a center of bereaved parents' anger. "Local officials ... gave us 10,000 RMB ($1,430) per child, but I cannot accept this," says Mrs. Song, who lost a child when the building fell. "I am over 40 years old, I cannot handle this blow. I don't know what to do next."

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In a retreat from the unusual official openness that marked the first two weeks after the earthquake, when local and foreign reporters were allowed to go anywhere they pleased, police have begun turning foreign journalists back from towns where schools collapsed, often on apparently spurious safety grounds.

Police have also made it harder for independent nongovernmental organizations to deliver aid to quake victims in a number of places.

The official mood, to judge by the state-run press and a ceremony held last week at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing to honor heroes of the relief and rescue operation, is one of self-congratulation.

This has raised doubts about initial impressions that the flood of volunteers who rushed to the quake zone to help, independently of the government or ruling Communist Party, might represent civil society asserting itself.

"The party does not see any need to adjust or reevaluate its role" says Russell Leigh Moses, a political analyst here. "It simply takes credit for everything that is going on."

At the same time, however, "even though the state still directs the process," argues Dali Yang, head of the East Asia Institute at the University of Singapore, the volunteer spirit and the Internet debates over the government's role indicates "a much more self-aware and reflective population that bodes well for continuing action."

The government's new nervousness about free press reporting and independent citizen action "may be a step backwards, but there were two steps forward" says one European diplomat. "This is progress. The envelope has been pushed."

On the ground, urban residents seem resigned to a life in tents and prefabricated housing for the foreseeable future. Longer-term permanent solutions to their problems "could take five years, or longer" says Professor Peng.

Farmers, however, are anxious to return to their fields that need harvesting, and many are frustrated at local officials' insistence that they should group together in temporary government-built settlements. "Most of them want to go back to the places they used to live" as soon as possible, says Ma Wanli, a relief volunteer focusing on the problems villagers are facing. "The problem is that government policy is unclear."

In Mianzhu, for example, Mr. Ma says, the local government has offered farmers 200 RMB ($114) per family member to help them build temporary houses near their fields if they insist on going home. But that subsidy would pay for only 36 sq. ft. a person, too little to live in.

And there is another problem, Ma explains. "The price of bricks has gone up 25 percent in the last week, and it is still rising. We just cannot tell how much construction is going to cost."

Zhang Yajun contributed reporting.

China quake response vs. US response to Katrina

China's rapid quake response has raised comparisons with the US's handling of hurricane Katrina in 2005, which was widely criticized as inefficient. The events differed greatly, both in scale of disaster and recovery approach. Hurricane Katrina displaced 800,000 people; the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that hit China's Sichuan Province left 5 million homeless.

After the hurricane, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided emergency trailers as homes. It used military facilities and contracted hotels and even cruise ships for shelter. People were also sent around the country. More than 30,000 people sought refuge at the Superdome in New Orleans but were evacuated after it became unsanitary and dangerous.

China's quake survivors – who have largely remained in the area – have received 1.2 million tents and 107,000 temporary houses, but millions more still need housing.

Both disasters left trouble in their wake that slowed recovery work. The US coast remained flooded for weeks. Sichuan Province is facing aftershocks and "quake lakes."

One month after hurricane Katrina, 52,000 National Guardsmen and active- duty military personnel were supporting operations in Louisiana. China sent at least 113,000 troops to Sichuan Province.

One month on, Katrina donations hit $833 million. China says it has received billions. Private aid played a big role after hurricane Katrina. The American Red Cross and Disaster Recovery Centers together helped 100,000 people in the first 30 days. Volunteers have flooded China's quake area, but authorities have limited their work.

Sources: AP, Bloomberg, Xinhua, FEMA.

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