Ten Years On, Sichuan's Quake Victims Are Silenced During 'Day of Thanksgiving'

A woman stands amid the rubble in the earthquake-hit town of Yingxiu in Wenchuan county, southwestern China's Sichuan province, June 3, 2008.
Associated Press

As ruling Chinese Communist Party officials in the southwestern province of Sichuan declared Saturday's 10th anniversary of the devastating 2008 earthquake a "day of thanksgiving" for reconstruction efforts, many quake victims said they are worse off than before and are prevented from speaking out.

In a feature article lauding reconstruction efforts since the massive quake devastated mountain towns around Wenchuan county, killing more than 80,000 people, state news agency Xinhua reported that the former disaster zone has undergone a huge transformation.

"Beautiful, pristine buildings can be seen everywhere, and the gratitude of the people in the earthquake zone can be felt in the mountains and green waters," the article said.

Yingxiu township, formerly at the epicenter of the May 12, 2008, earthquake, has been transformed into a "quaint and trim market town with restaurants, teahouses and local specialty shops," it said.

But campaigner Deng Yongqiong, who lost her child in the collapse of the Wufu Elementary School in Mianzhu city, said she will never fully recover from the wounds inflicted by the disaster.

"The biggest change for me has been a psychological one: I still can't forget that moment when the earthquake happened," Deng said. "My son was in the sixth grade of primary school at the time; he was only 13, and was getting ready to graduate."

"He was buried alive under that school. I am devastated, and I haven't been able to stay calm for the past few days now, or do any work, particularly because it's the 10th anniversary," she said. "I was howling [with grief] again this morning."

Deng and her husband, who died in 2014, adopted a girl after their son's death, but the government still hasn't paid out the subsidies it promised to the families of more than 5,000 schoolchildren who died under collapsed school buildings.

"They haven't given us any subsidies since the earthquake; they just took out insurance for each family, the lowest-paying form of pension insurance," Deng said. "There is only me and my daughter left now; she's nine years old, and is in the third grade of primary school."

"The pain is slightly less now that I have her," she said.

Reconstruction boom

Local residents told RFA that there will be a day of celebrations on Saturday, although many have hit out at the events, saying a day of mourning for victims would be more appropriate.

"It's all happening here for the 10th anniversary," a resident told RFA on Friday. "There will be a marathon in Yingxiu with runners from all over China on the weekend."

Another resident said post-quake reconstruction had boosted Wenchuan county's fruit and vegetable industry.

"Things are definitely better than before the earthquake," the second resident said.

A post-quake reconstruction boom has led to rapid urbanization in the region, with urbanization rates of up to 59 percent seen in towns in the former disaster area, according to the provincial government statistics department.

But campaigners say questions remain over corruption allegations and the misappropriation of relief funds by local officials, and that many of the hardest-hit victims have been forced to relocate out of the disaster zone, removing them from official figures.

Local authorities have responded to public grief and anger by placing many bereaved parents and campaigners for compensation under close surveillance or house arrest ahead of the anniversary, quake parents told RFA last week.

"Security is pretty tight right now, because this is a sensitive time," campaigner Zhao Yi said on Friday. "There has been no reporting [of our complaints], under the government's propaganda and public relations program. We're not allowed to bring up the quake or the suffering we went through back then."

"Still less are we allowed to ask what happened to the international aid donations and relief funds," he said. "People have asked what happened to the rest of the money, but the authorities have never given us a straight answer."

"Ten years on, the rest of the world has forgotten about it, and the people who were left with no livelihood have all moved on to find work elsewhere," Zhao said.

Quake victim Wu Xianjie said many people's homes were forcibly demolished in the wake of the disaster, but they have yet to be moved into new homes.

"The majority has yet to get this resolved, and they are still negotiating over it," Wu said. "They ... just keep dragging things out. Ten years on, we don't know what's happening, and we are starting to feel very weary of life."

"The local government just cracks down on us harder and harder as the years go by, but I won't give up," Wu said. "I will keep on complaining."

Part of the destroyed Xuankou Middle School is now the memorial site for the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in the town of Yingxiu, Wenchuan county, southwestern China's Sichuan province, April 21, 2018.
Part of the destroyed Xuankou Middle School is now the memorial site for the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in the town of Yingxiu, Wenchuan county, southwestern China's Sichuan province, April 21, 2018.
Credit: AFP
‘Nowhere near enough money’

Quake parent and rights campaigner Sang Jun, who lost his son in the collapse of the Fuxin No. 2 Elementary School in worst-hit Mianzhu township, said he had tried to file a civil lawsuit to recuperate some of the payments owed to parents under promised government subsidies, but that it was rejected because too long a time had elapsed.

Bereaved parents were permitted to have a second child after the disaster in a special dispensation under the former "one-child policy" family planning rules, but they say the government also promised to fund the children's education and other living expenses — a promise that has yet to be kept.

"Each household was promised 19,000 yuan (U.S. $3,000) to rebuild their homes, but that's nowhere near enough money," Sang said. "We are living in far greater hardship now than we were before the earthquake."

"The families who had another child are having the hardest time because their kids are all in primary school, and the government's promise to pay those children's expenses to the age of 18 have turned out to be nothing but empty slogans," he said.

"We have had to pay for everything since our kids started in primary school."

Reports have also emerged of problems ensuring that charitable funding is actually delivered to where it is needed.

Zhang Runxiang, who owns a trading company in the northern province of Shanxi, said his company had collected more than two million yuan to aid victims of the Sichuan earthquake back in 2008.

"We donated it to the Chinese Red Cross to be used to fund children disabled in the earthquake, to enable them to regain their independent living skills and support themselves," Zhang told RFA.

"But we have run into a number of systemic problems, which we are still trying to deal with, in recent years," he said.

Sichuan provincial party secretary Lu Pandeng denied that any relief funds were misappropriated, however.

"The spending of donated funds for reconstruction projects has been continuously disclosed, and third-party agencies are commissioned every year to review social donations," Lu told a news conference last week.

"The oversight of charitable and donated funds is even stricter, more open and more transparent, than that exercised over public funds," he said.

Reported by Qiao Long and Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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