I arrived before dawn in Dujiangyan, 80 kilometers from the epicenter of China’s catastrophic May 12 earthquake. Nothing in my life had prepared me for the scale of the devastation, and as the sun rose over the city, I wandered amongst the stunned residents searching for their loved ones or setting up tents in the pouring rain.
On every block at least one building had collapsed. I came across an apartment that was half gone, with the part that was still standing collapsed to its second floor. From the tray of an earthmover, three men took turns crawling into a small hole and digging at debris with their bare hands. Their colleagues told us they could hear a pregnant woman trapped inside.
Further down the road I watched rescuers dig around the crushed body of a woman to rescue her still-breathing 17-year-old daughter. All along the street unclaimed bodies lay under sheets and bits of cloth in the puddles that had formed from the torrential rain.
The scenes at Juyuan Middle School, where around 500 children were killed when their main classroom complex collapsed, were particularly heart-rending. As I approached the school, the first sound I heard was of fireworks, signalling that another body had been found. The most chilling thing was the reaction of parents when they saw the twisted bodies of their children for the first time and collapsed screaming in the mud of the playground.
In the aftermath of the quake, thousands of parents were asking why so many schools collapsed while many other buildings, including most government offices I saw, remained standing. The government promised a full investigation, but this did not satisfy many parents, who launched vocal protests that were subsequently silenced by local officials.
State-controlled domestic media have been mostly forbidden from reporting on the issue and have limited their coverage to positive images of the massive government-led response to the quake and the concern shown by China’s leaders.
From what I saw, the government response was extremely fast and effective. The terrible weather and mountainous terrain around the epicenter meant rescue efforts had to focus on the urban centers that could be reached. Rescuers and the military did an amazing job of clearing and reopening roads to places like Beichuan and Wenchuan within a couple of days.
China’s autocratic political system allows Beijing to mobilize enormous resources in the event of a disaster. But historically the government has not been so good at the more challenging job of reconstruction and caring for displaced people, many of whom end up in slum-like conditions, disenfranchised and protesting over state corruption and mismanagement.
Fears over how donations would be spent did not discourage many Chinese from donating to help survivors, whose sad and heroic faces were beamed into every living room in the country for the very first time.
A world away
About a month after the quake I was invited to a Sichuan earthquake charity ball organized by a French gourmand society and a European embassy.
In this surreal environment the only connections to the earthquake itself were a few words of condolence and a two-minute propaganda video showing a European ambassador in the earthquake zone with some of his country’s medical workers. A slideshow of exotic culinary creations ran constantly on the big screens around the room and the rest of the evening was taken up by the excellent food and wine, a fashion show and auction.
In this five-star hotel in Beijing, so far from the mud and grime of the Sichuan earthquake, the most authentic moment came at the very end of the night. When most of the guests had staggered drunkenly from the ballroom, a hired accordionist and his band belted out songs while the MC tried to persuade the stragglers to make their way home.
The accordionist, dressed like he had recently been demobbed from the People’s Liberation Army performing arts brigade, grabbed the microphone and told the drunken stragglers he was from Sichuan and he would like to play a song for all the children who had gone to heaven.
On my way to the elevator, the haunting strains of his accordion drifted after me and I thought I heard the pop of fireworks in the distance.