08/05/2008 - On Tuesday, August 5, a strong aftershock struck Sichuan Province, the site of a devastating earthquake in May. The quake struck the region only a few hours after the Olympic torch relay passed through the province, one of the last stops before the opening ceremonies in Beijing. The weekend prior to this latest aftershock, Deborah Fallows visited the region to report on the recovery and the people still dealing with the original earthquake's devastation. What follows is her reporting from that weekend.
Media focus in China turned away weeks ago from the May 12 earthquake to the Beijing Olympics, which begin in just a few days. With the emergency in Sichuan Province passed, reporters and cameras have left the earthquake zone, ranks of volunteers have thinned, and even the army has largely gone away. In mid-July, Chinese television showed grateful Sichuan farmers and peasants pressing baskets of decorated, hard-boiled eggs into the hands of soldiers, as their convoys headed home.
My husband and I fled the pre-Olympic crowds descending on Beijing for a week in the Sichuan countryside to see for ourselves what the news was no longer telling us: how are the earthquake survivors doing, what does the resettlement look like, and how does it feel.
After two years of living and traveling in China, we have become accustomed to unusual situations. But we were unprepared to witness the massive scale of this disaster and to imagine the immense task ahead for the people of Sichuan, already poor, to recreate their lives. In every direction, as far as we could see, walls of once-lush mountainsides had simply fallen away, leaving barren, brown basins or gaping, raw topography. Roads heaved up, bridges fell into rivers, big buildings balanced in crazy impossible angles, dwellings became rubble. What is left of life seems largely askew, but here are a few things I saw that surprised me at this stage:
Organization out of calamity.
As we drove out of the basin of Chengdu city and into the mountains, the first signs of earthquake were the parade of red and white banners strung across the highways. They were morale-boosting and even celebratory. The characters announced that the people of Sichuan thanked the people of various cities, or counties, or provinces around China for their help and support. Then came the signs of destruction.
At first we saw only an occasional house or tall building, often with cracks in the pattern of a giant X tearing out from the corners of each window frame. But the number of damaged buildings began to multiply, until an intact one became the exception. Tents appeared, either bright sky-blue or army green, or in camouflage patterns. Then row upon row of portable housing trailers, made of white Styrofoam and covered with a thin metal skin.
As we drove higher into the mountains, the housing trailers with 4 or 5 side-by-side rooms, showed signs of becoming villages: laundry lines, some playground toys, mops and brooms leaning against the doors, an occasional bicycle, and among the most resourceful, a few tables set up to sell drinks and soap. The public toilet I used in one such camp was familiar to China in every respect: a squatter, no cubicle doors, dim light, bad smell, evidence of occasional cleaning, unworking flush. The rumor is that people will be in these housing camps for three years.
There were many inventive shacks, devised by people who refused to let go of their grip on the land to move to the portable housing. These were made from anything left standing. Sometimes they were fashioned around the single standing wall of a house, or a lone upright cupboard, or a wooden frame covered by a woven floormat. Even the most makeshift dwellings often had colorful doors. Many doors seemed to survive intact and some shacks I saw had entire walls made from a row of doors hinged together side by side.
Everywhere along the roadside were neatly categorized bundles of debris: stacks of planks and boards; piles of rusty rebar; neat heaps of tangled metal wires; piles of mendable furniture; mountains of red bricks; scores of intact frames, windows mostly. Much of the human grief was stripped away, as all these remnants of personal lives became so much recycling or resale material.
Communicating with the outside world.
Chinese TV has filled the vacuum left by the end of riveting earthquake news with repetitive docu-dramas and plaintive reenactments, gala concerts, fund-raisers, and readings of personal stories to weeping studio audiences. All these productions are many steps removed from the plodding, dirty, smelly, real chores of putting lives together again in the villages. The world isn't watching any more.
But devastated Sichuan is still looking out at the rest of China. The first order of recovery was to resurrect television and mobile phone networks, rural China's sources for information and communication. We saw satellite dishes everywhere, wired into tents and shacks; we saw a man on a bike, balancing a new-found TV in his basket. We saw many people chatting on mobile phones, from teen-age girls in jeans to peasants in traditional Tibetan garb. Over 500 million Chinese use mobile phones, and China Mobile had their towers up and running quickly after the earthquake.
We saw no evidence of newspapers and no ad hoc internet cafes. The quasi official surveyors in China report that about 7% of rural Chinese use the internet.1 Behind this statistic are mostly young people seeking entertainment in internet cafes. Last week, I asked one 18-year-old in Baoshan village about the internet in his town. He said that the town's primary company, which is owned collectively by the village residents, got an ADSL line up and running just the day before, but that was all the connectivity they could expect for a while.
Much of the debris with no value is simply left where it landed. I saw two examples that were especially poignant. One was in a parking lot in a village just one ridge away from the epicenter in Wenchuan County. The road literally ended here now, where a resort had once flourished. The main building was still standing, but car-sized boulders had crashed down the mountainside and into its walls. Purple curtains hung out of the broken windows, faded and torn now by the rains since May. A peaked roof over the main entrance had collapsed. The statue of a dragon rested out front, virtually untouched. The resort parking lot, the local people told us, had been used as a temporary morgue for the hundred or so victims from the immediate area. The lot was cleaned out now, except for some small cast-off items including rubber gloves and face masks. One small pile had mostly burned, but a half-charred wooden chair, a remnant of a gas mask, and a pair of sneakers remained. Shreds of blue plastic were scattered around, along with some bits of blankets and fabric. I guessed that the workers had run out of stamina to finish the job, and these leftovers would be there for a long time.
Our last stop was a village outside Dujiangyan, where a 2,000-year-old irrigation system still functions to siphon water out to Sichuan Province. In the village of Juyuan was a school where about 900 children died. There has been much chatter in the press, on the internet, and on the streets about the quality of school buildings like this one in Juyuan, where concrete floor slabs simply collapsed into a stack like pancakes.
No school remains here now, barely even rubble. Everything has been cleared away, except bits of stones and the playing field with its fallen basketball post and muddy puddles. There is no makeshift memorial. There are no grieving parents to be seen. A few small groups of people were combing through the remains, but there isn't much left for them to find. There were others, like us, who came by in cars to look through the wire fence. The only thing left to look at are the other buildings that ring the former school grounds; all those buildings are still standing, damaged and vacant, but upright and intact.