Peasant survivors of 2008 quake find life in modern flats a struggle

Resettled rural dwellers say they preferred squalid cottages destroyed in quake to new flats

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 May, 2013, 5:41am

Rows of tidy new flats now sit on the edge of a large kiwi fruit field in Shihua, Sichuan , which was devastated by an earthquake five years ago.

The magnitude-8 quake toppled more than 200 houses in the old hillside village, about 40 kilometres from Dujiangyan.

I kept refusing to move in ... even though the village officials spared no effort in trying to convince me
Zhou Youcheng

Its 1,000 residents have now been given flats in 10 four-storey blocks at the foot of the hill, with the resettlement site presented to visitors as a model reconstruction project. The village no longer exists. It is now known as Shihua district.

As part of earthquake reconstruction, Dujiangyan has been turned into China's largest exporter of kiwi fruit. Four years ago, the provincial government attracted about 1.5 billion yuan (HK$1.87 billion) of investment and set aside more than 1,000 hectares of land to grow kiwi fruit, with 70 per cent of the harvest being exported.

But Shihua residents say life in their new flats is not as easy as outsiders might think, with many saying they preferred life in their squalid hillside cottages.

Zhou Youcheng , 43, said local governments had leased most of the district's farmland to large agricultural companies to grow kiwi fruit, and the rest often lay idle because of a lack of irrigation.

The kiwi fruit profits went to the agricultural companies and the local governments, with little trickling down to residents. And their new flats had no room to keep livestock or store harvests.

"If we want to plant crops on our land, we must keep a buffalo to help us plough it," Zhou said, adding that they had effectively been barred from raising buffalo since moving into the flats and could no longer grow paddy rice.

They were also no longer able to generate income by raising livestock or poultry, such as pigs and chickens, which they used to keep in their backyards. And there was nowhere to dry maize.

"All in all, we peasants simply don't find that life in multi-storey flats suits us, even though as quake victims we were basically given our new homes for free," Zhou added.

When the massive quake struck the village in May 2008, Zhou was digging for coal hundreds of kilometres away in an underground mine in Taiyuan , Shaanxi .

He rushed back home, spending two days and nights on the road, only to find that his two daughters, aged 15 and 11, had been killed, along with dozens of other children from Shihua, when the shoddily built Xiange Middle School collapsed. Nearly 400 pupils and teachers died when the town's school collapsed, with many of the children coming from nearby villages.

Most of their parents survived because they were working their fields when the quake struck.

Zhou had divorced his daughters' mother in 2007. After the quake he married a widow in Shihua whose husband had died in an earlier mine accident and whose new house was toppled by the quake. She gave birth to a son in 2009.

Zhou said he wanted to build a new home near the site of the old village so that he could go back to farming. "That's why I kept refusing to move in at the very beginning, even though the village officials spared no effort in trying to convince me," he said. "I pleaded with them to leave me alone. I wanted to give up the free new flat they built for me, as long as they would allow me to rebuild my house on my own, but they turned a deaf ear to me."

Zhou was told he had to seek the village committee's permission before building near the old site. Some villagers had already tried but had been turned down. "In addition, the village will never supply electricity to the hillside, even if villagers rebuild their houses there," Zhou said. "I backed down and signed my name, unwillingly, on the agreement to move into the new flat."

Two other Shihua residents, who declined to be named, said many of the middle-aged and elderly who had been unable to find jobs set out for the site of their old village every morning, spending most of the day under makeshift shelters. They used firewood to cook meals, only returning to their new flats at dusk.

That way, they could save money to pay for electricity, cooking fuel and water, which cost about 100 yuan a month.

"For decades, we lived there and had no need to pay for water, which came from springs, or firewood, which we gathered here and there," one of the peasants, in his 60s, said. "But now we have to pay about 20 yuan for the water and about 40 yuan for gas supply a month, in addition to the electricity we used to pay for in the old days. I've got no job and no pay, so how can I afford them?"

Finding a job in Xiange is not easy either, with only a few dozen businesses in the town.

But the residents of Shihua are still faring better than people from some other villages - at least their new flats are of good quality. Some quake victims in Deyang have complained they found cracks in their new flats.

Two years after the central government hailed the completion of the three-year reconstruction project in the area hit by the quake, including the building of new homes, many peasants like Zhou are still struggling to find a stable income.

"The lives of ordinary folk right here became harder and harder after the quake," he said.