Wenchuan earthquake: China’s turning point

By Huma Sheikh (APLP 09)

Huma Sheikh is a journalist from Kashmir working in New Delhi with United News of India. In her position as Senior Sub-editor she covers issues in her homeland, politics, lifestyle, economics, and culture. Ms. Sheikh has also written for the Hindustan Times. In addition to print media, she anchors a live English language television program on Doordarshan TV and a Western music program on All India Radio. She narrated in English for a University of Kashmir Educational Multimedia Research Center documentary that was telecast on Doordarshan TV. Ms. Sheikh struggled amidst mandatory bans on school attendance during her region’s conflict, eventually completing her secondary education. She now holds a BA and postgraduate degree from the University of Kashmir – New Delhi in Journalism.

Last month, I visited Sichuan province in China as part of the Asia Pacific Leadership Program and was curious to see survivors of the Wenchuan earthquake that killed 70,000 people and rendered thousands homeless, especially after witnessing another earthquake that was the worst ever natural disaster in my hometown of Kashmir in 2005.

In China, I went to Di Jian Yu, which is one of the worst affected areas, and was expecting to witness helpless survivors braving biting cold in makeshift houses. More so, the memories of Kashmir earthquake survivors still struggling in temporary houses, especially during snow in harsh winter, were fresh in my mind. ‘‘India is a democratic country but quake survivors are still in makeshift houses even after three years so the situation in China in a non-democratic setup will undoubtedly be worse as the Wenchuan earthquake was only six months ago,’’ I thought.

As I reached Du Jiag Yan, I saw some damaged houses with visible cracks. Some meters ahead were piles of brick and sand mounds of the affected houses dismantled for new structures. Some pre-quake residential colonies had become open grounds after damaged houses were razed to ground in the aftermath of the quake. The neighborhood looked like a newly-discovered place where people have just been settling down, with construction work going on in full swing.

I asked a pedestrian if there was any other place where huge damage had taken place, and I was surprised to hear the place I was standing was badly impacted by the quake. But everything had changed except for a few buildings with some visible cracks. Somebody suggested Puyang Lu colony, where most damaged houses still existed. It was a residential colony before the quake and one of the buildings, where a government-run company resided, was completely destroyed, burying over 100 people at the time of the disaster.

However, except for that damaged building, still in tatters, there was hardly anything different from what I had seen earlier. One of the ladies at the site, who was heading the company, was kind enough to give me the address of people in temporary houses. Li Mingyong said her family was also living in temporary shelters provided by the China government. And about her company, she said she was now running it from a nearby building provided by the government. She said the government was seriously considering shifting the quake survivors to their new houses as soon as possible, while she pointed to some construction workers at the site. Huge numbers of workers have been employed in order to expedite construction work.

Her version was enough to transform my perception about China, but her confidence and optimism even after her house was completely destroyed inspired me to know more about how other survivors were feeling. There was another reason behind my curiosity and that was Kashmir: The 2005 earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale and epicentered at Muzafarabad in Azad Kashmir (Pakistan-administered Kashmir) claimed lives of 1,400 people in the Indian part of Kashmir.

Three years on, most of the survivors of the worst-affected areas of Uri, Varmul, and Tanghdar in North Kashmir were yet to be rehabilitated. Not only was the ‘‘disorganized’’ planning of the government in distributing funds to be blamed — even some people who were not affected received compensation initially — but a huge amount of money was siphoned off by some local people working for international NGOs by exploiting the situation in the garb of surveys, which turned out to be unproductive later. Many survivors ended up getting no compensation for building houses as they had spent money the government had provided them in the first place, even far before the government’s announcement. The government announced that only those people would be compensated who had built plinth for their new houses, a pre-requisite to getting more funds. The phenomenon reflected collective failures of the government as well as NGOs and the people, who took undue advantage of surplus funds coming from the country and internationally, and bore the brunt eventually.

I headed to Qing Jian Ren Jia or temporary houses colony. There was no sullen silence in the colony but bustling activities with people wearing expressions that gave no sense of any remorse or the tragedy they had faced only a few months ago. The neighborhood of the colony was the perfect place of serenity. On the left side of the Qing Jian Ren Jia gate stood a policeman beside his office; the police guard the colony to avoid any untoward incident. As I walked past him and inched ahead into the lane, I saw a long stretch dotted with white painted one-storied mud-and-brick houses.

An elderly woman was knitting a beautiful sweater outside her door; I was not sure if she would agree to speak to me for a few minutes, but the woman instead invited me to her home. As she opened the door, I saw three Chinese names written on the door. My Chinese friends who were with me read the names for me, which I understood were the woman and her husband but I was confused about the third name. As I got into the room her husband was in there. The home was a big room divided into two parts. The room was stuffed mostly with clothes and there were two big beds that had covered huge space. We sat down on the bed and I asked them curiously about the third name on the door.

The man said “Yao Shi Kai is me, Ou Ye Zhen is my wife and Yao Ru Ping is my little daughter who died in the earthquake.” There was a one minute silence in the room and after a little while I asked him if they were comfortable in the makeshift house. ‘‘My family and I am very happy over here,’’ he said with a big smile on his face: a scene of gloom was quickly replaced by his gesture. ‘‘The government has helped us a lot. After the earthquake on May 12th, we shifted to the temporary shelter on May 29 and received Rs 300 Yuan from the government for the first three months. I have three children and one of my sons, who was unemployed, was given a job by the government.” About his house, he said it was not completely destroyed and the construction work was going on, though it would take some time because the damage of property in Sichuan province was huge.

Before we headed off to the next place, the couple insisted us on eating some oranges and didn’t let us go without having them. Chinese people are very magnanimous even more hospitable than Indians. Their friendly approach speaks wonders; they would go out of way in helping people, especially strangers.

Later, I met a young woman named Chen Ying. Her house was destroyed by the earthquake, but it hardly had made any difference for her. Before the natural calamity she was running a parlor at Di Jiang Yu and now she was doing the same business at the makeshift colony. She received monetary help from the government in addition to the compensation for the house. ‘‘My house was damaged in the quake and the government is rebuilding it now. I also got 300 Yuan for the first three months after the quake and a big room for my parlor in addition to the two-room apartment here. I have no regrets and the China government is great,’’ she said. Chen Ying has a son and her husband is working in a factory.

Not very far from there, I met another young lady, running an interior designing shop. Jiang Xiao Cui said everyone in her family was safe but her house was completely destroyed by the quake. However, she had no worries at all. Her family– husband, baby boy and Jiang– received 200 Yuan extra compensation from the government for another two months in addition to the first three-month 900 Yuan because the damage of house had surpassed the limit set by the government. The Chinese Government gives extra compensation to those victims whose house is damaged beyond the 70 sq ft limit set by the government.

The systematic management crisis approach of the so called ‘‘undemocratic’’ country of China shined through in the optimism, enthusiasm, passion, intelligence and remarkable pace to re-establishment of the people despite the worst natural disaster. The experience also validated the statement—which I earlier presumed was untrue—of a Canadian professor at Tsinghua University during a conversation I had with him at China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT) meetings in Beijing: the role of China government in managing Wenchuan earthquake was by far better than the US government’s response to Hurricane Katrina.
The Wenchuan earthquake has, without a doubt, proved China’ s efficiency in managing one of the country’s worst ever natural disasters. The China government has been credited for its rescue efforts and for its retroaction, despite the country’s initial reservation about allowing in foreign rescue teams.

The quake has been a turning point in Chinese politics: the Wenchuan earthquake has helped China divert the attention of the world from its controversial policies like restrictions on media and limitations imposed on people in general. In fact, the earthquake has brought people closer to the government, and they have all praises for the government’s remarkable approach to tackle the natural disaster in terms of compensation and rehabilitation of quake survivors. The quake has also helped China to regain its image affected by the widespread denunciation worldwide against its stand on Tibet.

The Chinese government has impressed the world and its efforts in dealing with the crisis have established strong credibility and accountability for this government among millions of Chinese people, who have been brought together by a wave of unity and patriotism. The quake has given rise to the emergence of a growing peaceful, unified and diversified China.