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May 21, 2008

Chinese Contradictions


by Sascha Matuszak

Chinese bloggers and foreign media are already stirring the pot against the corrupt construction firms and their greedy government sponsors. President Hu Jintao, who has been visiting the victims, and his faithful minister Wen Jiabao issued a warning to those who may have contributed to the deaths of hundreds of schoolchildren in China. Much has been made of China's frequent use of the death penalty: will the foreign media cry out if a few bosses get a bullet in the head for skimping on cement? Is corruption to blame for the deaths of so many children?

The truth is a little more complex, as I learned today from a civil engineer with 25 years experience with the Asian Development Bank. In the 1970s, the West embarked on a "Universal Education Program" which involved building thousands of schools and teacher colleges all over the world. Many of these schools were thrown up McDonald's-style, because the goal was not to build beautiful schools for a few, but useful schools for all.

China did exactly the same thing during the 1980s and 1990s following the educational nightmare of the Cultural Revolution. The idea was to wrest the countryside out of the 14th century and bring them into the modern world in a short period of time. It worked. Towns sprang up where there were once only rice fields. In Sichuan, there is a town of 50,000 every five kilometers, and every 10 kilometers a small city of 100,000 pops out of the rice fields. These towns are the homes of China's migrant workers. Factories employ erstwhile farmers, and their sons go to build the cities of China's future.

These relatively unskilled laborers march forward with poor quality cement, homemade bricks, and bent hammers. They build apartments, shopping centers, schools, roads, bridges… they build China. The skilled labor is pulled away to build the houses of the rich and the glitzy new apartment buildings modeled on Hong Kong's skyline. China's development has therefore been quick and explosive, but uneven and chaotic.

In China, there are concentric circles of development radiating from multiple developed centers around the nation – it works very much like an earthquake. Shanghai is to Chengdu what Chengdu is to Dujiangyan. Dujiangyan is to Deyang what Deyang is to Shifang and so on. Around each of these cities, suburbs of displaced poor people and fleeing rich people accentuate the uneven diffusion of modernity. A picture that has become a must-have for tourists is the "old man pushing a wooden rickshaw laden with cabbage past an advertisement for Lancome" – the quintessential China picture.

The further north you head out of Chengdu, the weaker the waves of development, just as the further away from the epicenter you get the weaker the P-waves that shake and rattle buildings. Many people do not realize that the hardest-hit areas in Sichuan are also among the poorest areas in all of China. This is extremely difficult terrain with little farmland, inhabited by a mixture of Han, Qiang, Tibetan, and Hui peoples surviving on small-time trade, tourism, and construction projects. China's boom had just begun to reach these areas in the last few years.

Wenchuan, the epicenter of the earthquake, is a thrown-up town of concrete and brick surviving on timber, some industry, and hydroelectric projects.

Most of the electricity is actually exported to the eastern cities like Shanghai, Fuzhou, and Dongguan, where factories – many staffed by migrant workers from Sichuan – churn out cheap Nikes day and night. Up until the earthquake, these regions were doing their best to promote more hydroelectric projects, more tourism, and more growth.

On a ride through north, I passed through Deyang, Shifang, Mianzhu, and Hanwang. The center of Shifang was rattled, but intact. The suburbs were devastated. Shell-shocked peasants and laborers made their way to refugee camps along the roads into Shifang and recounted tales of horror and mercy. One middle school in the village of Yinghua lost more than 300 students, most of them girls. The old concrete and brick houses of Yinghua did not stand a chance against the earthquake. A man named He pointed to a picture of two small girls shattered in the wreckage and told how he pulled his son out. His son has two broken legs and is recovering in a hospital in Chongqing.

One of the most striking sights was in Deyang, where the new high school – complete with a glass dome swimming pool – is only slightly damaged, whereas six other schools in the outskirts fell, killing hundreds of children.

On the road north, farmhouses and old factories had caved-in roofs and toppled walls. Random acts of mercy stood out: water towers, telephone lines, and the odd building remained upright. In Mianzhu, several shiny, new complexes towered unscathed over streets filled with the rubble of their shoddy, older neighbors. A group of refugees joked in the middle of a blast zone. They pointed at one man who managed to leave his house with only some tiny shorts and a pair of beat-up flip-flops.

Hanwang, far away from the developed center of Chengdu and much closer to the epicenter of Wenchuan, is almost completely devastated. Soldiers and tractors combed the wreckage for the corpses they could still smell, and crack teams of mine rescue and recovery guys from Shaanxi province rested after digging people out of the surrounding valleys for the past two days. Hanwang had just begun to savor the good life. Five years ago Hanwang was a one-horse town that had a little-known legend and not much else. Before the quake, it had grown into one of the largest towns in this mountainous northern region, with a little less than 50,000 people in the town and surrounding area. Hanwang became the center of modernity for the small villages in the mountains and valleys. Now those villages are buried under tons of rock, and Hanwang must be totally rebuilt.

The tragic irony of this earthquake is not that the poor are the worst off, as this is always the case, but that the government's breakneck drive to alleviate poverty in this region will be held responsible for the deaths of so many people.

My friend Zhuang is very pragmatic and stoic in the face of such disaster. He compared the earthquake to a mahjong game. The first set is over and now the pieces are being shuffled on the table for the next set. So many old, decrepit, and sub-standard buildings have been blown away; newer, stronger buildings must come. The self-conscious nationalism of March has been wiped away by slogans such as "10,000 people, one heart" and "We all belong to one family."

"Its just too bad so many people had to die for this to happen," he said.

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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