Day of gratitude and grief on anniversary of Sichuan quake that killed 88,000

The 2008 tragedy was officially marked by a 'festival of gratitude,' but questions about the deaths of 5,000 pupil remain unanswered

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 May, 2014, 3:49am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 May, 2014, 5:43pm

Bai Peian, a 46-year-old villager in Maoba village, Sichuan, held a simple memorial for his second son, who died in the magnitude 8 Wenchuan earthquake six years ago yesterday.

"We burned some [joss] paper money at home, and that's it," said Bai, still grieving for his 15-year-old son, who died after his three-storey school block collapsed when the quake tore through the region at 2.30pm. Not one of the 500 pupils in the building that day survived.

Bai was busy tending his farm yesterday. "Life goes on … and is getting slightly better," he said. "But the grief of losing a son never goes away."

His lingering sadness stood in stark contrast to the official commemorations being held in the vicinity of the quake's epicentre. It is the sixth anniversary of the devastating quake that left 88,000 people killed or missing.

In Yingxiu township, in Wenchuan county, locals were invited to a "festival of gratitude", an event organised by a government-backed institute that had a range of activities, including a dance by the Qiang, one of China's ethnic groups who live in the region, and a beauty contest "to express the area's gratitude for the aid it has received since the quake", news portal Sichuan Online reported yesterday.

Wang Guorong, a resident of Luobozhai, a Qiang community in the area of Wenchuan, said the village committee organised a dance by a local troupe in memory of the quake victims.

Wang said the Luobozhai villagers had gotten on with their lives, moving into new homes and making the most of a surge in regional tourism to the scenic area of astonishing natural beauty and ethnic diversity.

State-media outlets yesterday lauded the transformation of Wenchuan into a centre of ecological tourism, with aerial photographs showing new roads and blocks of flats that have risen from the rubble.

But six years on, troubling questions remain. Some 5,300 of the dead were pupils killed when their substandard schools collapsed - while many other structures remained standing.

Activist Tan Zuoren, released in March after serving five years in jail for investigating the deaths of students in the quake, was under police orders not to talk to media, Voice of America reported. Tan's name was blocked on popular microblogs and search engines.

The official publicity office focused on the post-quake economic vitality of Wenchuan, noting that some six million tourists in 2013 generated total revenue of 2.6 billion yuan (HK$3.6 billion) for the county.

Life goes on … and is getting slightly better ... But the grief never goes away
Bai Peian

On social media platforms, internet users posted messages about the quake. "I escaped from the shaking school building - an exam paper still clutched in my hand," said a resident of Chengdu, the provincial capital. "In retrospect, the quake taught me valuable life lessons."

Lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan asked rhetorically in an online post about the nature of the tragedy: "The earthquake was a natural disaster, but we still have to ask if the deaths of more than 5,000 students was related to a man-made disaster?"