China’s government set Wednesday as a national day of mourning over last week's 6.9-magnitude earthquake, as it continued its proactive response to the disaster whose death toll has topped 2,000.
Six days since the quake struck remote Yushu County in western Qinghai Province, 17,000 people have been rescued, the Telegraph reported, citing government officials. On Monday, three more people were pulled from the rubble: a girl and her grandmother and a young woman. But the prospects of finding 195 people still missing have dimmed.
The government has responded energetically to the crisis, deploying some 15,000 rescuers to the quake zone, including 11,000 police officers and soldiers. So many military supply trucks are heading to the hard-hit town of Jiegu that traffic on the main road has backed up for miles, reported the Associated Press.
Troubled recent history in region
Beijing has offered considerable public sympathy for quake victims, who are mostly Tibetan. Members of the ethnic minority group, sometimes accused of separatist desires, can bristle at the government's tight control. Protests broke out in Tibet in March 2008, the 49th anniversary of an uprising against Chinese rule, and escalated into full-scale riots. Unrest also grew in Tibetan communities in neighboring provinces. China responded with a show of force that indicated no tolerance for autonomy, and cut off the region from the rest of China.
Another sensitive subject is the death toll among schoolchildren – in the massive 2008 Sichuan earthquake, many schools collapsed while surrounding buildings stood, triggering anger over shoddy construction.
Prime Minister Wen Jiabao also toured the area last week, arriving one day after the event. He addressed the ethnic tensions outright, the Wall Street Journal said, citing state media. "Whether you are Tibetan or Han [China's majority ethnic group], we are all from one family and we need to take care of each other," he told residents. "We will make all-out efforts to build a new Yushu."
To help Tibetans communicate with Mandarin-speaking rescue workers, some 100 volunteers from the Communist Youth League, which is associated with the ruling Communist party, have arrived to serve as translators.
The authorities also appeared to warn Tibetans against stirring up trouble. Jia Qinglin, the fourth-highest ranking Communist Party official, on Monday referred to "hostile forces from abroad working to cause disruptions and sabotage" to relief efforts, the AP reported. "Hostile forces" often refers to the exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing condemns as a "splittist," and his supporters.
Impeding rescue efforts now is the weather. Light snow began to fall Tuesday, with more snow and sleet expected through Friday. In another obstacle, some residents in hilly areas refuse to leave their wrecked homes, an American teaching English in Yushu told the BBC. "They are afraid that looters will go through the rubble and steal their things.... It's most difficult to get aid to them."
Some 12,000 people are injured, about 1,200 of them critically, and several thousand are still homeless.