China Accused of Covering Up Quake Damage

2013-04-26
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A woman stands on top of a collapsed house near Ya'an in Sichuan's Lushan county on April 23, 2013.
AFP

Claims from Chinese officials that the majority of buildings built after the devastating 2008 earthquake didn't collapse in Saturday's magnitude-7 temblor in Sichuan faced criticism from rights groups and quake survivors as the province was rocked by a smaller tremor on Friday.

Friday's 4.8 magnitude earthquake jolted Sichuan's Yibin city, injuring 61 people, just six days after a larger quake in Lushan county left more than 200 people dead or missing and around 12,000 injured.

Reconstruction work was beginning on Friday, meanwhile, in the wake of the Lushan quake, amid official claims that stricter building rules brought in after 2008 had proved effective.

Official media quoted Qiu Jian, chief planner of the provincial housing and urban-rural development department, as saying that most of the buildings that collapsed in the earthquake near Ya'an city were built by local people.

"As for the buildings constructed as part of post-quake programs following the [2008] earthquake, none of them collapsed though these buildings bore some cracks or broken walls," Qiu told reporters.

He said a team of more than 400 experts had determined that post-2008 buildings were largely up to anti-quake standards.

A total of 186,300 rural buildings collapsed in the quake and about 430,000 homes were gravely damaged, provincial officials told a news conference on Thursday.

Claims disputed

The claims were disputed by local residents and activists, however.

A resident of Sichuan's Tianquan county surnamed Yu said the situation on the ground didn't match up to this assessment.

"I have come across a lot of privately built houses, three-storey buildings built by the owners themselves, which didn't drop a single piece of concrete and which don't have any cracks in them at all," she said.

"They all came through the quake unscathed."

She said she doubted whether government-built buildings had performed as well.

Post-2008 rules

Officials were closely questioned by reporters over the extent of collapsed buildings, in spite of tougher rules on earthquake-proofing brought in after the 2008 quake left 87,000 people dead or missing, thousands of them schoolchildren.

A resident of worst-hit Lushan county, Rui La, said everyone in her neighborhood had been made homeless after the quake had rendered their homes too dangerous to live in.

"All our houses were hit," she said. "No one's house came through it OK, not even the ones built last year, or those that were just finished. They all cracked."

She said a school in the county that had been built to tougher specifications since the 2008 disaster was now unsafe for use.

"It was built after 2008," Rui said. "Now they will have to build huts so the kids can go back to class."

The U.S.-based Chinese-language news site Boxun said that the newly built No. 3 Elementary School in Ya'an city, which was supposed to withstand a magnitude-8 earthquake, had sustained major damage, with fallen walls and broken tiles everywhere, and wasn't suitable for use.

Meanwhile, the New Tang Dynasty website said large numbers of armed police had moved into the quake-hit area, and were using up precious resources that could be used to prioritize rescue work.

It quoted local residents as saying that there were around 10,000 troops and armed police in the region by Thursday, suggesting that the authorities feared popular unrest amid widespread anger over the rescue operation and the level of damage to buildings.

Only three of the 359 schools in Ya'an had escaped damage in the earthquake, and among the worst hit was the Lushan High School, which was built by Hong Kong-donated relief funds in the wake of the 2008 quake to withstand a magnitude-8 tremor, it said.

Huang Yuming, a resident of Lushan's Taiping township, said more armed police—who are generally used instead of troops to maintain public order—had been arriving the area every day.

"There are armed police here, yes," Huang said. "Every day they come. There are more than 20 in our [immediate area] alone."

'Huge damage' to newly built buildings

Sichuan-based Huang Qi, who runs the Tianwang website and rights group, said relief workers sent to the quake-hit region by his group had reported problems with large numbers of reconstructed buildings after the quake.

"Our sources from the disaster area are telling us that they have visited a lot of public buildings like schools and hospitals in the past couple of days, and unfortunately even those that were newly built have suffered huge damage," Huang said.

"According to an initial investigation [by the government], most are not currently being used," he said.

Sichuan urban construction official Si Qijian defended the performance of the newer buildings, however.

"It's normal for there to be cracks or damage to buildings after such a big earthquake," he said.

"The most important thing is that they should sustain no damage in a smaller earthquake, be reparable after a medium earthquake, and not fall down in a large tremor."

Online commentators said they wanted to hear the government's definition of "collapsed."

Shenzhen Commercial Times reporter Huang Xiping posted via the Twitter-like service Sina Weibo: "The Chinese language is very broad in scope! Who can tell me what 'not a single building collapsed' actually means?"

"Does it count if half of it collapsed? How about nine-tenths? Or, so that there's only a brick and a tile left standing?"

"They are using these ridiculous notions to try to cover up the truth of official corruption that lies behind these tofu buildings," Huang wrote.

Reported by Xin Lin and Shi Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Fung Yat-yiu for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.