Earthquake anniversary leaves bitter taste

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 May, 2012, 12:00am


For Tang Xiaoping, who lives near the epicentre of the 8.0-magnitude earthquake that destroyed her home in Sichuan province on May 12, 2008, today's official commemorations of the disaster's fourth anniversary are irrelevant.

'My life has never been so difficult, and I am totally disappointed with local authorities, who have paid scant attention to our sufferings,' said Tang, whose home in Yingxiu, Wenchuan county, is only a few metres from today's ceremonies.

Tang's family of three, who originally lived in a house sitting right at ground zero of the disaster, consider themselves lucky to have survived an earthquake that killed most of her son's classmates, who were buried alive when their shoddily built classrooms were reduced to rubble.

The country's worst natural disaster in decades claimed more than 87,000 lives across 51 counties in the provinces of Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi, destroying entire communities.

Beijing has since claimed credit for a 1.7-trillion yuan (HK$2.1 trillion) reconstruction programme, most of which has been spent on rebuilding infrastructure, but that has not been enough for the central government to escape harsh criticism for the rampant pollution, misuse of funds and poor quality of newly built homes that have since followed.

'We can barely make a living now because of severe industrial pollution,' said Tang, pointing at the Aba Aluminium Smelter built about a kilometre away on the banks of the Min River. 'It kills everything in the fields, from our crops to fruit trees, and we can't even breathe when it churns out plumes of choking white smoke, mostly at night.'

According to Tang and her fellow villagers, the aluminium factory, which began operating since 1991, did not become an environmental threat until its expansion after the massive earthquake. The original smelter, which was almost flattened by the quake, was among the first things to be rebuilt in the reconstruction of Wenchuan county, one of the worst-hit areas.

Highlighting local authorities' keenness to restore the economy, the smelter was allowed to expand its production capacity more than five-fold when it resumed operations in late 2008, and was soon functioning as the engine of local economy, despite fierce public opposition over environmental concerns.

Pollution was just one of the miseries for Tang and over 400 fellow residents at the resettlement village of Zhenyuanxincun, or 'quake hypocentre village'.

Local government's decision to rebuild villagers' homes with bricks and wood was problematic. Cracks and fissures began to appear in the walls just a few months after they moved into their new houses, and a series of jolting aftershocks prompted safety fears among the locals.

'Authorities had repeatedly assured us that it was safe to rebuild our houses here. But since we spotted building-quality problems, all they have done so far is take some photos of those cracks, leaving us in the lurch,' Tang said.

The smelter has also put people's health at risk, according to Tang, who says her husband worked briefly at the factory but had to quit after a rash broke out over his body. Despite health concerns, over 100 people from her village are working at the factory and their monthly wages of over 1,000 yuan have become the main source of village income.

'We are basically left with only two options: either the factory is relocated, or we move out,' Tang said, adding her family could not afford to relocate on their own without the government's help.

Zhenyuanxincun is not the only place that has suffered. According to a rough estimate by locals, the lives of more than 4,000 people in eight villages near Aba Aluminium have been disrupted by the smelter, where nearly 1,400 workers produce 200,000 tonnes of electrolytic aluminium a year.

Pollution from the smelter is hardly a secret, and become a focal point for central government officials during their inspection tours.

According to an Aba county government document available online, tackling the factory's pollution has been listed as a priority for the county's environmental watchdog. However, local authorities have for years turned a deaf ear to residents' grievances, claiming that the plant, a symbol of rebuilding success, has met environmental standards and is indispensable for the county's economic development.

They have often defended the polluter by pointing out that both President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have visited the factory, which they interpreted as an implicit endorsement.

The aluminium factory is not the only example of Beijing's reckless expediting of the rebuilding process, which has seen the original three-year reconstruction programme cut to two years.

Despite the government's promises not to relax environmental standards for rebuilding, more than 100 chemical plants, including 59 that process toxic chemicals, were allowed to resume production within weeks of the disaster, and many new industrial projects featuring high energy consumption and heavy pollution have been approved.

Professor Chen Guojie at the Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment in Chengdu , part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, was angry that local authorities in mountainous Wenchuan county, which lies on an active fault line, had failed to heed warnings about the risks of polluting industries.

Ai Nanshan, a Sichuan University professor, also pointed out the apparent conflict between the county's goal to develop the tourism industry, and its insistence on protecting industrial polluters such as Aba Aluminium.

'It doesn't make any sense to rebuild a factory which was a mistake in the first place, that is upstream of the Min River and Chengdu and located right next to the county's best tourist attraction of Yingxiu town.'

Ai said the pollution disaster of the smelter underlined the fact that past mistakes, including the much-criticised model of 'develop first and clean up later' and the government's loathing of public participation, had not been heeded.

A report by the National Audit Office last month also found widespread embezzlement, government overspending on vanity-driven construction projects, and new quality problems at rebuilt schools in quake-hit areas.

Local governments were found to have spent extravagantly on building their offices and other vanity projects, such as gardens and squares. Meanwhile, the audit report documented dozens of quality-related problems - mostly due to funding shortages - with the construction of 11 schools and vocational colleges in Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces.

Although this year's report did not give a figure for the amount of money that has been misused or siphoned off, the audit office admitted last year that embezzlement and misuse of 188 million yuan had been discovered in 36 reconstruction projects.

That disclosure followed another even more embarrassing one from 2010 - that about 5.8 billion yuan in reconstruction funds had been misused.

Analysts said the released figures were only 'the tip of the iceberg', as Beijing was eager to use the rebuilding to showcase its rising power and spending ability.

They lashed out at Beijing's apparent attempt to bury the bitter memories of the disaster and quell dissent, and its insensitivity towards the widespread discontent and simmering anger that run deep in the quake zone.

Professor Zhu Lijia, of the Chinese Academy of Governance, said local authorities' incompetence and inefficient allocation of rebuilding funds and other resources had fuelled public distrust of the government.

'Organised irresponsibility is prevalent throughout the quake relief and reconstruction process, among central and local government agencies. This not only poses grave hazards to social justice and sustainability, but has also further undermined the government's credibility,' he said.

He and another Beijing-based political observer, Hu Xingdou, also lamented the central government's reluctance to admit its glaring inadequacies in the rebuilding, especially when it came to the long-stalled investigation into the so-called tofu buildings, which were widely blamed for the deaths of thousands of schoolchildren.

'It is preposterous to cover up real problems, because stability cannot be achieved at the expense of justice and human lives,' Hu said.


The approximate number of schoolrooms that collapsed during the 2008 quake, according to a BBC estimate