Tuesday, May 13, 2008
[Xinhua domestic reports that the emergency PBSC meeting of evening 12 May decided to "set up a quake and disaster relief work headquarters with Comrade Wen Jiabao as the head and Comrades Li Keqiang and Hui Liangyu as the deputy heads to take full charge of the current quake and disaster relief work."]
As expected, some kind of PSC level leading group has been set up, led by Wen himself, but also including Li Keqiang, Hui Liangyu (he is the VP normally in charge of disaster relief, but obviously, it's a bit over his head). I think it probably also includes Ma Kai, Meng Jianzhu, and most likely Minister of Finance Xie Xuren.
Sadly, the death toll looks like it is going to be quite horrendous. Tens of thousands of people are still trapped under rubble, and we still have little idea of what happened in Wenchuan itself. The affected areas will need food and medical shipments from the rest of China for months to come. This will not help inflation.
More ominously, anger is spreading, as seen in the excellent WSJ article: "At least nine schools fell across the quake zone, trapping thousands of children in gruesome scenes that were repeated time and again. There was rising anger at authorities over the loss of so many young people, expressed both on the ground and on the Internet."
Wall Street Journal
China Earthquake Exposes
A Widening Wealth Gap
By LORETTA CHAO and JASON LEOW in Pengzhou, China, JAMES T. AREDDY in Shanghai and GORDON FAIRCLOUGH in Shifang, China
May 14, 2008
With the death toll from China's earthquake mounting, the disaster is throwing a harsh spotlight on the widening gap between the nation's rich and poor.
As soldiers and paramilitary police rush to dig victims out from collapsed schools, homes and hospitals, it is clear that the quake inflicted its greatest destruction on rural areas. These include small but fast-growing towns that have mushroomed from the farm fields in recent years as part of China's rapid urbanization.
China Photos/Getty Images
Soldiers of the People's Liberation Army block entry to the site of a collapsed primary school, where hundreds of students are trapped.
Such areas have far less stringent building-safety practices than China's relatively wealthy big cities, construction experts say. As a result, some citizens were more vulnerable than others when disaster struck. Rescue and relief workers struggled Tuesday to reach victims in remote areas most damaged by the magnitude-7.9 quake in the southwestern province of Sichuan. Deaths in Sichuan alone had exceeded 12,000 as of Tuesday evening, with more than 26,000 injured and at least 9,400 buried in debris, the state-run Xinhua news agency said, quoting a senior provincial official.
On the outskirts of the small city of Shifang, east of the epicenter, Fang Haiying, a 40-year-old rice farmer, said more than 10 members of her village remained buried in rubble of their houses. She and her extended family were wearing surgical masks to protect themselves from a chemical leak at a damaged ammonia plant a few kilometers away. "We've been waiting but no one from the government has come. We have nothing to eat," she said.
Nearly every house in Yinhua village on Shifang's western edge was destroyed. Boulders loosed by Monday's quake, some as big as vans, littered the main road in the area, along with the vehicles they knocked over or crushed.
Survivors of the chaos walked down the narrow mountain roads to Yinhua in search of transportation out of the quake-stricken area. Two 15-year-old boys said they had walked three hours from their village in the mountains to get to Yinhua. The pair, Chen Shi and Zheng Jia, said their middle school, like so many others, had collapsed within seconds. About 100 of their schoolmates died, they said.
Tens of thousands are still missing as the rescue effort continues in China following the country's worst earthquake in three decades. Officials warn that more aftershocks and mudslides could add to the toll. Video courtesy of Reuters.
Roughly 90 kilometers away, the disparity of damage was striking. The glitzy new office towers and hotels of Chengdu, Sichuan's bustling capital of nearly 10 million people, were still standing and largely intact. The city suffered relatively little in Monday's quake, despite its proximity to the epicenter.
Natural disasters often wreak their worst havoc on the disadvantaged, people who tend to live in subpar housing. This was the case with Hurricane Katrina in the U.S.
Now, the issue is especially thorny for China's government: President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have based much of the public legitimacy of their administration on trying to address a widening wealth gap resulting from decades of capitalist reforms. Part of their overall plan, for example, has called for improving rural health care and education.
China's booming economy has lifted the financial fortunes of most of its citizens, but some have gained far more than others. Economists say the country, still nominally socialist, is now among the most unequal major economies in the world. Much of this imbalance is seen in the contrast between residents of the big, wealthy cities, and those of small, poorer towns and rural areas.
A mother mourned as Chinese soldiers carried the body of her child, killed when his school collapsed in Dujiangyan.
Incomes in rural areas, for example, averaged 4,140 yuan per person last year, or about $590 at current exchange rates. That represents an increase of 91% from a decade earlier, not adjusted for inflation. Urban disposable incomes, by comparison, rose by 150% during the same period, to an average of 13,786 yuan last year.
Mr. Wen, who flew to the disaster zone within hours of the quake, spent Tuesday touring affected areas and reassuring the public that Beijing would help those most affected. "We will try our best to send milk powder to parents and ensure that children do not go hungry," Mr. Wen told victims after learning of shortages of food, drinking water and tents, the Xinhua agency reported.
On the Ground
On the ground, authorities scrambled to rescue survivors. China's defense ministry said that as of Tuesday afternoon, nearly 20,000 soldiers and paramilitary police had arrived in quake-hit areas, with an additional 30,000 en route in planes, trains and trucks, or on foot. Repeated aftershocks complicated efforts and prompted thousands to seek refuge outside in makeshift tents scattered across the region.
[See an Interactive Graphic]2
See details on the earthquake's impact nationwide, and see how the aftershocks took place.
The epicenter of the quake, Wenchuan County, has remained largely cut off from help. Because of bad weather, officials scrapped plans to fly relief supplies in by helicopter, then canceled a second plan to send in rescuers by parachute. Finally, about 1,300 military doctors and soldiers reached Wenchuan by foot -- nearly 24 hours after the quake struck.
China's building code has long required that new structures be able to withstand earthquakes, according to Huang Shimin, an earthquake engineering expert at the China Academy of Building Research in Beijing. But standards from region to region remain inconsistent. Throughout Sichuan, the specification is grade 7 on scale of up to ten. The same level applies in Shanghai. But in Beijing, the standard requirement is a grade of 8 -- reflecting the capital's close proximity to the epicenter of a 1976 earthquake that killed at least 240,000.
"Based on China's codes for earthquake-resistance in building designs, if there is no problem in specific design and construction, China's capability to resist the earthquake should be strong," said Mr. Huang. "But there are many uncertain issues related to the earthquake, so it's still a complicated issue."
Architects said the quake's discrimination could be partly attributable to the variation of tremors from one area to the next. But they also cited widespread differences in construction materials and technical skills between wealthy Chengdu and the poorer towns around it, as well as often patchy enforcement of building codes.
"There are a lot of holes," said a Shanghai-based architect who often works in Sichuan province.
[Map of plates]
Adding to the pressure is that thousands of little-known cities are literally sprouting up from pastureland in China. China's urbanization push is bringing up to 15 million people into cities annually. All of them need shelter, often as cheaply and quickly as possible.
The trend has helped make the world's most populous country the world's largest construction zone. China built about 1.80 billion square meters, or more than 19 billion square feet, of property in 2006. At the time, another 4.10 billion square meters was also under construction, according to government statistics.
Such rapid urbanization is transforming Sichuan, one of China's biggest provinces with a population of about 82 million -- roughly equal to that of Germany. The mountainous province ranked fifth out of China's provinces for the amount of floor space it laid down in 2006, almost twice as much property as completed in Beijing.
In hastily built towns around Pengzhou, about 60 kilometers southeast of the epicenter area, local people acknowledged the construction of their now- destroyed homes was shoddy, with little consideration given to safety. The government's oversight of building regulations has tended to be scant.
Liao Xiaoling said her brother in law was thrown from an upstairs window and her 86-year-old father crushed under a wall when the brick structure that was both their home and business toppled. "Our home is gone," she said.
Besides its collapsed schools, two hospitals also suffered damage in Sichuan. Some experts say public funds often accumulate more slowly than new residents in fast-developing areas, and are often diverted to other uses, such as building lavish local government offices.
Government officials warned against drawing the conclusion that particular kinds of buildings were more vulnerable than others. Li Bingren, the spokesman at China's Ministry of Construction, said buildings in the disaster area were built to code, but the quake and its aftershocks were "stronger and higher than the designed resistance level." Schools, he said, tend to have larger rooms and be bigger than ordinary buildings, exacerbating the toll when they fail.
In Beichuan County, about 160 kilometers from the epicenter, nearly 1,000 paramilitary police were searching frantically Tuesday for survivors in a school that collapsed, burying at least 1,000 students and teachers. The Beichuan Middle School's main building, formerly seven stories tall, had been reduced to a pile of rubble about two meters high, the official Xinhua news agency said. One teenage victim was pulled out with no legs, Xinhua said. Authorities have estimated the death toll could reach more than 3,000.
At least nine schools fell across the quake zone, trapping thousands of children in gruesome scenes that were repeated time and again. There was rising anger at authorities over the loss of so many young people, expressed both on the ground and on the Internet.
At the People's Hospital in Pengzhou, nurses estimated they had treated at least a thousand injured people. A lack of electricity prompted hospital officials to evacuate patients outside into blue tents in the hospital's parking lot and backyard.
'It's All Gone'
The hospital was starting to run out of water Tuesday afternoon. Many patients were frantic because they had been separated from their families and were unable to reach them because of downed phone networks. Some were told to go home, but said they had no homes to return to.
Zhou Yan, a 26-year-old farmer, was in a tent recovering from a head injury she sustained after bricks from the second floor of her home fell on her. Doctors said she was free to go but there was no way for her to get home. "I have no home to go back to. It's all gone," she said.
Ms. Zhou's husband is a migrant worker who makes furniture in Shenyang. He managed to get in touch with her, but no buses were available for him to take home. She said she believes the parents of her niece, who was staying with her when the quake hit, are dead.
Ms. Zhou said her house, built over 10 years ago, was brick, which is common in this area. The couple never thought to build it to withstand earthquakes, especially of this magnitude. She estimated it will cost at least 100,000 yuan to rebuild it, money she said will be "impossible" to save. "There's just no way. I don't know what to do next, or who to ask."
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