2008 Earthquake

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By Sascha Matuszak

China has just sent its second medical team to Haiti, along with 20 tons of supplies and five Chinese peacekeepers to replace the four who died in the earthquake that destroyed Port-au-Prince on January 12th. The current group replaces a set of Chinese International Search and Rescue workers and sniffer dogs who arrived in Haiti the day after the disaster struck.

In a Beijing News editorial on January 15th, Shi Jia, a Beijing-based scholar, writes that the quick Chinese response to Haiti’s earthquake has to do with empathy and the fact that just over a year ago, Sichuan went through the same experience. In the China Daily, the devastation in Haiti was front page news and an editorial reiterated Shi Jia’s point:

The suffering of people anywhere in the world strikes a chord in the hearts of Chinese people. The death of four Chinese peacekeepers in Haiti has little to do with it. Chinese people feel a special sympathy for Haitians because just less than 20 months ago they were struggling to rise from the debris of one of the biggest quakes in human history.

It is noteworthy that the official Chinese media has refused to compare the logistical nightmare that Haitians are experiencing with the amazing efficiency of the Chinese state back in May 2008. In the U.S., much of the discussion surrounds the deep infrastructural and economic problems that have exacerbated the tragedy in Haiti and made for some very gruesome photo-ops: corpses piling in the streets, people looting and an atmosphere of general chaos and despair.

Taking this into account, comparisons with the quake in Sichuan that killed at least 80,000 people will find that, although the tragedy here in Sichuan was horrific and scarred the region forever, what is happening today in Haiti might prove to be even more devastating. The nearest big city to the Beichuan earthquake, Chengdu, is a provincial capital that escaped most of the damage; in contrast, the earthquake in Haiti destroyed the capital, decapitated the government, and killed the top UN officials in country at the time. The city of Chengdu was able to provide a large and capable base of operations for the domestic relief efforts (blood drives, water drives, clothes drives etc.) and the international aid and media organizations that poured in from all over the world. Places like the Bookworm Cafe in Chengdu provided couches, Internet access and hot coffee for dozens of different operations. In Haiti, by contrast, organizations have had to set up facilities in whatever surviving structures they can find—even the airport.

People arriving in Haiti may feel as though they are entering a war zone, as they see U.S. Marines unloading gear and hear helicopters hovering over head. In this New York Times article, written five days after the quake, the frustration of aid workers from around the world is palpable:

“There are 200 flights going in and out every day, which is an incredible amount for a country like Haiti,” said Jarry Emmanuel, the air logistics officer for the agency’s Haiti effort. “But most of those flights are for the United States military.” He added: “Their priorities are to secure the country. Ours are to feed. We have got to get those priorities in sync.”

My memory of the situation in China in 2008 is very different. In the wake of the disaster, China didn’t require quite as much synchronization. The country was secure. There was very little looting or violence in Sichuan after the quake, and the nation responded at once and as one to provide monetary aid and manpower to clear roads, re-build bridges and establish a systematic relief program that kept frustration and death at bay. One day after the earthquake in Sichuan I was able to access the roads to Qing Cheng Mountain, just outside of Dujiangyan. This region was devastated by the quake: houses were flattened and boulders the size of semi-trucks had slid down the hillsides and buried entire communities. Nevertheless, people had cell phone coverage, water, tents and food, and volunteers were already streaming into the hills looking for something to do.

Haiti, by contrast, was a poor, corrupt country that was barely able to stand on its own two feet without the UN at its elbow and was beset by many problems before this quake even hit. In terms of infrastructure, Haiti is widely considered on par with Somalia — an assessment tragically confirmed by images of bulldozers piling the bodies of earthquake victims into dump trucks.

It is important to note that Beichuan and the rest of northern Sichuan were and for the most part still are under-developed and poor parts of China.  So, in 2008 as well, the epicenter of the quake was a backward, poverty-stricken region with corrupt local officials, who had been cashing in on infrastructure funds meant to develop the area — not much different than Haiti, in some respects.

The tragic scandal of decrepit engineering and shoddy materials is still seething in Sichuan as couples mourn the children who died at their school desks and attempt to move on with their lives. China is not a First World Country, no matter what the economic growth rates tell us, and regions like northern Sichuan are prime examples of the eddies of poverty that exist even after waves of progress have washed over the country.

On January 14th, David Brooks commented on the ills of Haiti and attributed them to a combination of “too much aid,” historical oppression and culture:

We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.

He ends his essay by calling for a “Huntington-esque” cultural revolution in Haiti that would help turn poverty and hopelessness into affluence much better than any aid could. The overwhelming influence of culture is an easy assumption to make, given the prevailing attitudes about China’s culture (united, industrious, obedient) and the response to the earthquake in Sichuan as a basis for comparison. Brooks, however, knows very little about northern Sichuan and how poor and uneducated the region is; clearly, culture did not save these people when the earthquake struck.

It might be more productive to see what China actually did and is still doing to repair the damage of the 2008 earthquake. Sichuan and Haiti have deadly earthquakes in common and the experiences of the one can definitely inform the decision of the other. With most natural disasters, logistics, or the lack thereof, tends to be the biggest factor in reducing the damage and death of a natural disaster.

In China, the quake was pragmatically viewed by some as a chance to re-build the region from scratch with central government (and private) funds and a clear and unambiguous program of reconstruction supervised by authorities in Chengdu and Beijing. These authorities organized meetings with city planners from around the world in order to devise a plan that would not only repair the logistical net that was destroyed, but strengthen it as well.

In the weeks after the quake the central government assigned each province in China to an affected region in Sichuan. Construction workers from Anhui, Shandong, Shanxi and Guizhou were building temporary homes, roads, latrines, bridges and other needful things within two weeks of the earthquake.

China aimed then (and still aims now) to re-vamp the entire region with a top-down approach of heavy spending and heavy building, and Beichuan and Dujiangyan have Beijing and Chengdu to rely on. A project underway right now involves linking Gansu, Shanxi and Sichuan Provinces through a highway network built in the very mountains that shook like leaves in 2008. The idea is simple: enable the free movement of people and goods and the economy will flourish, the community will be strengthened and future disasters will not take as heavy a toll as they would have with less infrastructure in place.

One thing to look for in the months ahead is how Haiti (and the world) responds to the glaring inadequacies of the Haitian infrastructure and government. Will Haiti be rebuilt stronger than before? Will the Haitian people unite under a banner of common suffering, or tear each other apart in order to survive? Will the international community spend billions to build a massive port in Port-au-Prince and a six-lane highway linking the port to the hinterland and then leave the locals to figure it all out, like they did in Bali?

Reconstruction and aid are complex issues and are susceptible to graft, infighting and mixed solutions with mixed results. What we can learn from the Chengdu earthquake is that a solid base with the mandate and a long term plan seems to work well in getting a region back on its feet and running again. This essay here, by Chen Rong for The China Daily, argues that a base of operations and a determined government make all the difference.

The key is that Beijing and Sichuan saw a chance to improve a part of the country that, although a vital part of China’s long-term development, had yet to enjoy the fruits of the nation’s economic rise.

Port-au-Prince should be regarded as providing a similar opportunity to fix what has been broken for far too long.

Sascha Matuszak is a Chengdu-based writer read more of his work at Chengduliving.com.


Yesterday, China Media Project’s David Bandurski published a post that highlights the best of what CMP does: muckraking in the China media and blogosphere, in this case regarding school construction in Sichuan. If CMP isn’t already on your RSS feed, we encourage you to add them. In the meantime, Bandurski kindly agreed to let us re-post this piece on the suppression of findings regarding shoddy school construction in Sichuan.

By David Bandurski

China Economic Weekly, a spin-off magazine of the official People’s Daily, ran an important story Monday about the collapse of school buildings in last year’s Sichuan earthquake. But the story, posted initially to People’s Daily Online, was removed by day’s end, a sign that some important officials at least were not pleased.

The original URL for the story at People’s Daily Online is now replaced with a tell-tale trace: “The page you wish to view no longer exists.”

Nevertheless, this is a story to keep your eyes on and one that amply illustrates the complexity of China’s media environment. Where did the story come from? Why was it allowed to appear at all?

The story’s jumping-off point is an academic study on construction quality in the quake zone launched last year by Tsinghua University, but it makes much more explicit the findings of the study as they are relevant to the problem of school collapses.

The story, by reporter Zhou Haibin (周海滨), uses the numbers in the Tsinghua study to make it clear that schools surveyed by a team of experts suffered far more crippling damage in the quake than did government buildings. For example, while 44 percent of government buildings studied were still deemed usable, having sustained little seismic damage, only 18 percent of school buildings studied were still deemed structurally sound.

The article quotes the author of the paper, professor Lu Xinzheng (陆新征) of Tsinghua University’s Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Project Research Center, as saying that . . .

. . . the severity of school collapses in the quake owed not to [the inadequacy of] our nation’s earthquake mitigation means and objectives. The problem [he says] is the [failure of] application of these preventive means and objectives in particular regions. He says that owing to China’s national characteristics (我国国情) and limited national [government] strength, the level of seismic resistance [for buildings] in many local areas was as low as .5 to 1.0 when it should have been 1.5 to 2.0.

The long and short of it: negligence by local government officials.

Lu Xinzheng runs a decent personal website in both Chinese and English, which includes PDF downloads of much of his research over the last few years. There’s contact information too, but we’re supposing the news has already cycled past the earthquake anniversary so far as those editors back in New York and London are concerned, right?

Anyhow, a list of Lu’s recent earthquake-related research is here. One of the most interesting papers is a study of the structural weaknesses of buildings in last year’s Wenchuan earthquake. In this study, Lu and his colleagues write about the notable thinness (and hence weakness) of vertical supporting columns in frame structured buildings in Sichuan, which either buckled or broke when the quake struck.

“In the Wenchuan earthquake, most of the many frame structured buildings that either were damaged or collapsed were of this sort, particularly spacious and open buildings that were purely frame structured (most of which were school classroom complexes, see figure 8),” Lu and his colleagues write.

Fortunately, yesterday’s story from China Economic Weekly has not disappeared altogether. As of 10:51am today the story was still available at Qingdao News.

The article’s headline also appeared today in a list of “recent news” in the Chongqing section of People’s Daily Online, and the link was still active, taking readers to this Chongqing page with the full text of the report.

A search in the WiseNews Chinese news database suggests the story also ran yesterday on CCTV’s international website, and on the website of China News Service.

A partial translation of the China Economic Weekly story follows:

Seismic Investigation Team Reveals Causes of Severity of School Collapses in the Wenchuan Earthquake
China Economic Weekly
Zhou Haibin (周海滨) reporting from Beijing and Sichuan

This reporter recently received a copy of an academic paper called “An Analysis of Seismic Damage Caused to Structures in the Wenchuan Earthquake,” written by a seismic investigation team from Tsinghua University, Southwest Jiaotong University and Beijing Jiaotong University. Of the 54 government buildings that the investigative team studied, 13 percent (or 7 buildings) were deemed to have been irreparably damaged [by the quake]. Of the 44 school buildings that they studied, this ratio was 57 percent (or 25 schools), more than four times the level [of damage] seen with government buildings.

Numbers reveal damage to be most serious among school buildings

After the earthquake struck on May 12 last year, Tsinghua University arranged for a team of relevant experts to travel to Sichuan, and they teamed up with civil engineers (土木结构方面专家) from Southwest Jiaotong University and Beijing Jiaotong University, making a series of three investigations into seismic damage to structures [in the earthquake zone].

The investigative team classed structures sustaining seismic damage into four categories: 1) usable, 2) usable pending repairs, 3) use to be ceased, and 4) immediate demolition. Buildings were divided into types according to their purpose: school, government, business, factory, hospital and other public buildings.

According to the statistical chart provided in the paper, China Economic Weekly has determined that 44 of the 384 structures studied were school buildings. The numbers provided in the chart reveal that of the 44 school buildings studied, 18 percent (or 8 buildings) were deemed usable, 25 percent (or 11 buildings) were deemed usable pending repairs, 23 percent (or 10 buildings) were labeled “use to be ceased” (unusable) and 34 percent (or 15 buildings) were recommended for immediate demolition.

In comparison, the percentages in all categories for the 54 government buildings were: 44 percent usable (24 buildings), 43 percent usable pending repairs (23 buildings), 9 percent “use to be ceased” (unusable) and 4 percent for immediate demolition (2 buildings).

The paper also points out that schools and industrial structures suffered more serious seismic damage due in part due to the functionality of their designs. Schools suffering seismic damage were largely structures of masonry, with large-spanning rooms, large openings for doors and windows, projecting corridors, and in some cases no allowances made for quake resistance, so that their earthquake resistance was low. Factory building were also largely masonry structures, usually of small scale and spaces consisting predominantly of parking areas where there were few personnel. For this reason, little consideration was given [in factory buildings] for earthquake resistance, and seismic damage was rather severe.

Government buildings mostly used reinforced concrete frameworks, and seismic damage to these was minimal . . .

Ever since the quake struck, public opinion in China and overseas has turned to the issue of construction quality in the quake zone. Addressing concerns about “tofu engineering” [shoddily built structures], Sichuan’s acting vice-governor Wei Hong (魏宏) said in answer to questions from reporters that the collapse of schools in this major earthquake was the unavoidable result of natural disaster.

The author of this paper, professor Lu Xinzheng (陆新征) of Tsinghua University’s Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Project Research Center, believes that the severity of school collapses in the quake owed not to [the inadequacy of] our nation’s earthquake mitigation means and objectives. The problem [he says] is the [failure of] application of these preventive means and objectives in particular regions. He says that owing to China’s national characteristics (我国国情) and limited national [government] strength, the level of seismic resistance [for buildings] in many local areas was as low as .5 to 1.0 when it should have been 1.5 to 2.0.

Images and the full text of the above article are available at the China Media Project website.

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A year ago, we were glued to our televisions and computers, like so many others in China and around the world, watching a tragedy unfold in Sichuan. The news we saw from the earthquake zone was bleak and heartbreaking.

Several news sites have run memorials, one-year on, and we’ve selected a few of those in the reader below. We also point you to some of the coverage we ran at China Beat in the days that followed.

1.One of the things Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley stressed in a piece for China Beat last May was that Chinese volunteerism was not a brand-new phenomenon, instead linking to a strain in the late Qing. The volunteer spirit that has emerged in response to the earthquake, however, has continued to draw attention, as in this piece at the Christian Science Monitor.

2.China has officially expressed its “gratitude” for international aid, a situation many were tracking a year ago.

3. Richard Kraus noted the historical resonances of the efforts to preserve “Grandpa” Wen’s calligraphy in Sichuan. Wen Jiabao’s written words have continued to be a source of interest, as shown by this piece about Wen sending handwritten notes to earthquake survivors.

4.The Chinese Red Cross has continued to be an important source of aid to survivors, as discussed in this piece from the Telegraph. In a two-part piece last year, Caroline Reeves wrote about the history of the Chinese Red Cross (part 1, part 2).

5.Some of you may remember that NPR reporters Melissa Block and Robert Siegel were coincidentally in Sichuan when the earthquake struck. NPR has been providing in-depth one-year coverage of the earthquake, including this piece on the sensitive topic of children who died in their classrooms. In a piece last spring, Peter Hessler relayed correspondence with his former students—about whom he wrote in River Town—immediately after the earthquake, many discussing the events at their local schools.

We ran a few other pieces at CB one year ago that readers may continue to find interesting (if you didn’t read them the first time around): Susan Brownell’s consideration of the Tangshan earthquake and the Montreal Olympics, Steve Smith’s investigation of the role rumor played in the Sichuan earthquake, and Don Sutton’s piece on the mourning rituals after the earthquake.


By Angilee Shah

Busan, Korea – Pan Jianlin’s documentary about the earthquake that struck Sichuan province on May 12 made a quiet debut on a Sunday morning, at 10 a.m., the third day of this year’s Pusan International Film Festival.

With its not-so-great timing and grim title, Who Killed Our Children was a blip on the festival calendar’s 315 films and 85 world premieres. And if you happened to miss the documentary in Korea, it’s possible you will not have an opportunity to see it again.

Pan’s film’s subject is as simple as its title, examining the collapse of one of the many schools that became deathtraps for thousands of children after the quake. That subject has been a closed one in official Chinese media since mid-summer which makes Pan’s exploration of the subject very significant.

But after its two small Pusan screenings, the film has no further festival dates to speak of. And though it’s some of the strongest reporting on the earthquake produced so far, it’s almost certain that it won’t be shown in China, except on the black market or in private screenings. In fact, Who Killed Our Children never received Chinese government permission to be screened in the first place.

Pan, a Beijing resident, gives a big smile and a little laugh when you ask him about operating without the official approval so many other Chinese filmmakers depend on. The highly-anticipated feature All about Women pulled out of the festival when it could not get the nod from Chinese authorities in time. Directors are required to seek permission to show their work abroad, and films are often cut to make sure China is shown in a good light.

“My friends and family are worried,” he says with a shrug. But with a wave of his hand, he says emphatically, “Write whatever you want!”

Pan Jianlin at the Pusan International Film Festival

Six days after the earthquake struck, Pan went to Muyu District in Qingchuan County, the site of one of the disaster’s biggest tragedies. The Muyu Middle School dormitory had collapsed and buried hundreds of young students who were napping inside. Parents were camped in tents, homeless and looking for answers.

Who Killed Our Children takes a systematic look at the details of the collapse of the Muyu Middle School dormitory, where even the number of children who died in the collapse is in dispute. Official numbers say 286 of the school’s 846 students died; many believe the number is actually closer to 500. The film is series of interviews, brilliantly edited, that tackle the questions surrounding the disaster one at a time from different points of view.

One interviewee calls the building “tofu construction,” describing the weak superstructure and foundation that has become common in China in recent years as contractors cut corners. Others say students on the second floor where locked in by teachers during their rest time. Help came too slow and ill-equipped, say aggrieved parents. Families buried their children in the hills with their own hands, and government officials reburied the children in the middle of the night without notification. There is a lot of heartbreak in the film. Ultimately, Who Killed Our Children is a relentless investigation of how people and their societies attempt to cope with unimaginable tragedy.

Pan tackles these difficult issues in a remarkably dispassionate way. He started his career as a lawyer, but became a prolific filmmaker. In the last five years, he has made several documentaries and feature films, including Feast of Villains, also screened at Pusan, about a Beijing delivery boy who sells his kidney to pay for his father’s healthcare. He tackles serious subjects in a straightforward way. Absent voice-overs, dramatic music, overdone text, and fancy graphics, Who Killed Our Children relies on the unfolding of events to create suspense. Do not expect easy answers or sweeping condemnations here.

“I just gave the people [in Muyu] to the audience directly,” Pan explains. Aside from the frightening aftershocks, it was a “very easy” film to make.

This is not to say that the film is not critical. Where state-media’s optimistic coverage leaves off, Pan’s reporting just gets started. Around Asia, China was praised for its openness after the earthquake hit, especially in the wake of the Myanmar government’s ruthless clampdown on information after Cyclone Nargis killed about 150,000 people in that country, just a week before China’s quake. The Sichuan earthquake took close to 80,000 lives, according to official numbers, but the Chinese government immediately allowed information out and foreign aid in.

Even so, Who Killed Our Children raises doubts about how information gets out after a disaster. The most striking example is a scene showing CCTV’s limited reporting. Officials opened a temporary school in Muyu district soon after the collapse of the dormitory. CCTV cameras captured children singing nationalistic songs with their new desks and school supplies. They turn off the cameras when parents show up, angry that their grief was being ignored for the sake of a positive story.

Although only a few official media outlets were allowed to report on earthquake devastation at first, other media were not kicked out of devastated areas. Pan stayed in tents, like the locals, and parents were eager to talk. Local officials wanted media attention so that their neighborhoods would get help. In ten days, before being kicked out by soldiers, Pan filmed people on the ground – parents who were eager to find out the truth, teachers who narrated their experiences, and students whose classmates and siblings were lost. Almost all government officials refused to speak, but several school officials, a relief coordinator and an education official did go on camera.

A natural disaster on the scale of the Sichuan earthquake would be a difficult situation for any government to handle. Pan is confident in Beijing’s strides. “If there wasn’t progress, we could not sit here and discuss the problems,” he says.

He returned to Muyu District several times. On his third trip, he was detained in a police station. “Officials don’t like independent filmmakers,” he explains. He stayed two days and two nights for refusing to give up his tapes. Finally, after being sure the tapes were safely copied, he gave the police his footage.

It wasn’t so bad, he says. The officers were friendly and gave him good food to eat. He also used the time to write a new script called Natural Disturbance. It’s about being jailed.


By Pierre Fuller

In May of this year I wagged a few fingers at British writer Simon Winchester for an op-ed piece he penned in the wake of Sichuan’s devastating quake. Appearing as it did both in the New York Times and in its global edition, the International Herald Tribune, his attempt at posing a supposedly quake-fit “West” or “America” against a Chinese people who had collectively all “turned their back” as early as the 16th century on science and construction know-how begged immediate comment.

I soon found myself in the bowels of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies’ archival collection and, as it goes, came across the following words by another Englishman on Chinese construction, this time around from his China Inland Mission post nearly a century ago in Gansu’s capital, Sichuan’s neighbor to the northwest. “These Lanchow houses are very well constructed with a strong framework of wood into which the walls are built so that they will stand a great strain,” he wrote after experiencing a three minute-long earthquake during an evening Bible Study and then its fifty aftershocks. “We all felt that very few English houses would have stood that test.” *

The quake of December 1920 did kill some 100,000, mostly those in the rural loess cave dwellings of eastern Gansu, burying many or their vital grain stocks under mounds of earth. All but 42 lives in the rattled capital, though, were spared.

Makes you wonder whether one shouldn’t do a bit more probing into variations on Chinese engineering across time, and across classes, regions and terrain, before launching an indictment of post-Ming Chinese know-how onto the world’s press.

(For the record, the International Herald Tribune printed a letter I sent to them in May, granted in rather butchered form.)

* “The Earthquake,” E. J. Mann in Links with China and Other Lands, No. 31, April 1921, Lanzhou: China Inland Mission (quarterly) Bound volume in MS 380302, Papers of Ebenezer and Mabel Mann, SOAS, 331.


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