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Chinese government continues heroic rescue efforts

Published Jun 15, 2008 9:08 PM

Everything about the response of the Chinese government to the massive 8.0 magnitude earthquake in Sichuan province shows its ability and willingness to mobilize enormous resources and people-power in a matter of hours in order to carry out a complex plan of rescue, relief and reconstruction.

China has come a long way since its socialist revolution. Periodic famines and floods used to kill millions of people. Today it has an advanced infrastructure that has been mobilized with amazing speed and effectiveness.

High praise is pouring in from all over. Francis Markus, the coordinator in China for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said, “We’ve been extraordinarily impressed by the speed, efficiency and commitment of the government’s response to the disaster. ... China will stun the world with the pace [at which] the rebuilding process moves.”

Even George W. Bush had to congratulate China on its handling of the disaster. He is probably hoping to soften comparisons that will inevitably be made to the way his government handled the Katrina flood, which, while a much smaller natural phenomenon, led to chaos and death, especially for the African-American population of New Orleans.

The scale of the problem in China is monumental. The area of the quake—which is full of steep mountains and rushing rivers—has experienced 10,000 aftershocks, some of which have been comparable to small earthquakes.

There are countless tales of great heroism. Several hundred rescue workers, including the crew of an army helicopter on their 64th relief mission, have died trying to reopen roads or fly into the affected towns and villages. Before crashing in turbulence and heavy fog, the copter had ferried 25.8 tons of relief materials, 87 quake relief workers and 234 victims back and forth. Nearly 1.39 million quake survivors have been found and evacuated.

The Chinese government issues daily, detailed reports on the number of people killed, wounded and missing. (See china.org.cn.) As of June 10, four weeks after the disaster first hit, the toll had risen to 69,142 dead, 374,065 injured, 17,551 missing and 46.25 million people affected in some way. Hospitals had treated 95,252 injured people, of whom most had been released.

Army succeeds in draining lake

A potential second disaster has been averted. The People’s Liberation Army succeeded in blasting a trench through a huge landslide that had blocked the Tongkou River in devastated Beichuan County and created a dangerous lake near the city of Tangjiashan. Some 250,000 people living downstream from the lake were evacuated as soldiers and police struggled to create a safe channel for the water.

Several short-range missiles were fired at boulders to break them up—showing that even some of today’s awesome military weapons can have a peaceful application if the commanders are willing to use them for that purpose.

All those left homeless by the earthquake have been provided with temporary shelter, medical attention, food, clean water, quilts and clothing. Children have been sent to schools outside the region. There have been no outbreaks of cholera or other epidemics that often accompany great social dislocation.

The government has announced a price freeze on construction materials at pre-quake levels, exerting its authority over businesses that would profit over the disaster.

China has come a long way

To get a full appreciation of just what an amazing accomplishment all this is, it must be remembered that just 59 years ago, when the Communist Party-led revolution vaulted to power after decades of struggle against both the landlord-capitalist rulers of China and the invading army of Imperial Japan, the country was overwhelmingly agricultural and impoverished.

Periodic famines and floods ravaged China and killed millions of people. Industry was rudimentary in most areas; only a few industrial cities existed along the coast and in the northeast. There was no modern infrastructure—paved roads, electricity, sanitation, communications—in most of China.

To begin large-scale construction projects, the new China had to pull itself up by its own bootstraps, using primarily people power. Tens of thousands of volunteers turned out to build dams, roads and other infrastructure projects. Photos of the period showed long lines of people—“bucket brigades”—passing along the earth and rocks needed.

The revolution had unleashed the energies of the Chinese people to do through mass, collective effort what had been unthinkable.

For the older generation who can still remember those days, China now, especially in the coastal region, is unrecognizable. Vast, gleaming cities have been built and factories hum, turning out manufactured goods for the world. But in the southwest, like Sichuan province, the population is still largely rural and the economy is considered underdeveloped.

While the work being done still depends on the voluntary efforts of millions of people, it is today made a million times more effective by modern technology. Earth movers, trucks, helicopters, satellite phones, generators, antibiotics, blood for transfusions, water purification kits—a myriad of modern supplies have been rushed to the area along with trained personnel to minimize the suffering and casualties.

It is difficult to get an understanding of China’s great efforts through the Western imperialist media. Reports are generally brief and, in the first weeks especially, focused on areas to criticize the government. However, Chinese abroad, many of whom study and work in the United States, expressed their anger through blogs and chat rooms at the lack of compassion and solidarity. The negative tone of the media also may have been tempered somewhat because U.S. companies are looking for markets for their products as China moves quickly to reconstruct a large area of the country.

The media in China are not one-sided; they report problems as well as achievements. A government commission has been set up to investigate why so many schools collapsed, killing thousands of children, when buildings around them withstood the quake.

It is clear that the building codes in effect did not anticipate a quake of this enormous magnitude—8.0 on the Richter scale. And there were undoubtedly buildings that either did not adhere to the code or were erected before such codes existed.

Howard French, in a June 5 article headed “Experts warned of quake risk in China” in the New York Times, faults “the ruling Communist Party.” Yet he also quotes Chinese scientists who were anguished that they had not pressed for stronger building codes.

“While many say scientists advocated stronger precautionary measures for years, some also expressed a deep sense of failure for not having warned the government in stronger terms that seismic danger there was being underestimated. The Longmenshan belt did not appear, for example, on a recent priority watch list of likely trouble spots. [Longmenshan is a fault line that runs through the affected area.—WW]

“‘Beyond the pain felt by ordinary Chinese, we in earthquake science are guilty beyond description,’ said Ma Shengli, deputy director of the Institute of Geology of the Chinese Earthquake Administration. ‘Our ability fell far short of what was needed, and we can’t help but cry.’”

China today has greater scientific knowledge and a much larger social surplus to draw on in tackling such questions. The reconstruction plans now being drawn up by the government contain much stronger safeguards against earthquake damage.

By contrast, “Despite more than $22 million in repairs, a levee that broke with catastrophic effect during Hurricane Katrina is leaking again because of the mushy ground on which New Orleans was built, raising serious questions about the reliability of the city’s flood defenses. ... The Army Corps of Engineers has spent about $4 billion so far of the $14 billion set aside by Congress to repair and upgrade the metropolitan area’s hundreds of miles of levees by 2011.” (AP, May 22)

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