China won't rebuild town that earthquake hit hard

BEICHUAN, China — Chinese authorities have decided that they will not rebuild this town, the largest one destroyed by this month's savage earthquake.

Officials have determined that the town of Beichuan, the picturesque one-time home of 20,000 people, is located in too unstable a region atop the Longmen Fault to be restored.

Instead, the town is likely to become a memorial park and the towers of rubble from its crushed buildings will remain as a permanent remind of the quake's power for generations of awe-stricken visitors to witness. The State Council, China's Cabinet, will make a final decision by the end of the month, Zhang said. “Experts say the only option is to move the town and keep the remains,” said Zhang Jie, press spokesman for Mianyang municipality, which oversees this town, where 8,600 are known to have died, more than 5,000 remain missing, and the rest have been relocated to the nearby cities of Mianyang and Anxian.

China wouldn't be the first country to seal off a city devastated by natural disaster, then turn it into a memorial site. In 1985, a volcanic eruption melted the icecap on an Andean peak in Colombia, triggering a mudslide that buried the town of Armero, killing 23,000 people. The site was later declared "holy ground" and turned into a park.

Beichuan as a huge memorial might be a fitting tribute to a calamity that's likely to be seen by historians as a watershed moment for China, an event that saw the nation mobilize in massive numbers to help the victims, and embrace an emotional patriotism that at times seems feverish.

China’s senior leaders personally arrived in the quake-stricken region to organize relief efforts. They allowed unusual levels of media freedom to satiate a public hungry for information, and gave an unusually visible role to the People’s Liberation Army, which deployed 130,000 soldiers to help with the disaster.

Tens of thousands of ordinary Chinese volunteers flocked to the quake zone in Sichuan Province to offer their services.

“People are giving their help in any way they can. If they have money, they are giving money,” said Zhu Chujun, who is part of a volunteer team from the eastern city of Hangzhou offering psychological counseling to victims.

If emotions are high in China, Zhu said it is because of a confluence of events.

“Everyone knows that 2008 is a special year,” she said, referring to the upcoming Beijing Summer Olympic Games.

Many Chinese feel deep pride at their nation’s re-emergence as a world power, mixed with anger at ethnic Tibetan unrest in March, and frustration at world reaction to China’s handling of it, which led to repeated protests during a global Olympics torch relay last month.

Then the 7.9-magnitude earthquake hit Sichuan Province in China’s rugged southwest, a devastating natural catastrophe with tremors felt across the country.

As of Thursday, the quake’s death toll stood at 51,151, with another 29,358 people missing. Some 4,000 children were left orphaned by the disaster.

China’s economic might was on full display in the relief effort. Rescue teams drove down new highways that China has built in recent years to arrive at the quake zone quickly, bringing modern earth-moving machinery. Helicopters hovered overhead as rescue teams deployed state-of-the-art equipment to locate buried survivors.

Chinese journalists immediately began acting like Western counterparts, shaking off initial censorship rules to rush to the area and air vivid accounts of the quake, which survivors still describe in colorful detail.

“I couldn’t even stay standing up holding onto a tree,” Ling Kaishun, a 54-year-old farmer, recounted Thursday in a typical story.

The accounts resonated with the citizenry, and their actions defied the long-held belief that Chinese only care deeply about family, not unrelated Chinese.

Among those who volunteered is Dr. Wei Baoren, a retired internist from Tangshan, a city near Beijing that lost a quarter-million people in an earthquake in 1976. At that time, Beijing covered up the magnitude of the quake for at least a year.

“The government and people have gone all out to help the victims this time,” said Wei, standing outside a Red Cross tent on the outskirts of this ruined city. “Compared to the earthquake 32 years ago, this is a magnificent development.”

To channel the raw emotions bared by the new quake, Beijing mandated three days of “national grief” this week. It ordered flags flown at half-staff, closed all movie theaters, banned most entertainments like karaoke, and encouraged patriotic rallies.

Tens of thousands of Chinese gathered in the main squares of large cities on the one-week anniversary of the quake, and still at mid-week in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan, hundreds of people shouted themselves hoarse at candle-lit vigils in front of a statue of Mao Zedong, modern China’s communist founder.

“Resist the earthquake!” shouted one young man. “Go China! Don’t cry China!” responded the crowd around him.

Pressure has surged for both citizens and private companies to display generosity.

In some workplaces, lists are being posted of how much each employee has donated so others can judge whether they think it is sufficient.

Ling, the farmer who tried to cling to a tree, said relief efforts face big hurdles.

“The government is under huge pressure,” Ling said. “I’m a party member. I must have a good attitude. … But such a vast area has been damaged.”

Indeed, some 12 million people were displaced by the quake, and the lucky ones now live in tents. The government issued an emergency appeal for 3.3 million new tents Thursday, as it struggled to deal with the long-term housing crisis of the victims.

Even physical risks loom over Beichuan as planners look at a commemorative park. Three miles up upriver, landslides have blocked the waterway, creating two deepening lakes that threaten to burst their banks and send a torrent through the ruined town. Fearful of a deluge, authorities now block all visitors at Beichuan’s outskirts as experts devise how to restore the waterway.