A Construction Engineer’s Thoughts on the Sichuan Earthquake

Out of the chaos of online chatter about the Sichuan earthquake comes a detailed essay by a construction engineer calling himself Book Blade (书剑子)that has been winning praise for its analysis. Recently published on Chinese blog the Whiteboard Report, the bulk of the essay concentrates on national problems that have come to light since the quake hit. Following are a few of his more salient points:

The public lags in scientific understanding:

Earthquakes are a frequently occurring natural disaster. Every year it seems the globe suffers a series of earthquakes of varying sizes. The historical record is scattered with accounts of earthquakes causing massive death and loss. But because of our nation’s particular brand of education, our children are fed 20 years of Marxist philosophy with Chinese characteristics—a philosophy that has nothing to say about saving lives. With earthquakes, only scientific knowledge can provide you with a lifeline. Yet, our system for educating officials doesn’t provide them any knowledge about how to handle natural disasters…

The government is not prepared enough for disasters:

…Dragon TV invited some asshole, the assistant manager of Shanghai’s disaster prevention and rescue office, to make a special guest appearance. At a time when journalists on the frontlines were all reporting unbelievable death tolls and saying the complete collapse of school buildings had made students the people worst hit by the earthquake, the male host of the program said: “I’ve been in Japan during an earthquake. In Japan, where earthquakes are common, schools are used as disaster shelters, meaning Japanese schools are relatively sturdy. But with the Wenchuan earthquake, it was exactly the opposite. The schools all failed completely and became scenes of massive death. What do you think is the reason?” After saying this, he fixed his gaze on the Disaster Office assistant manager. This moron has obviously been steeped for a long time in officialdom. His face twitched a little, then he said: “The main reason is that the magnitude of this earthquake was too big.” After he said this, I hurled my remote control. Then the female host stepped in: “We saw it, with this earthquake, in the relatively wealthy county the rate of collapse for apartment buildings was small, but the economically backward counties seemed to have been razed to the ground. Doesn’t this prove that earthquake defenses were better in rich counties? Doesn’t this prove that the tragic death toll in this earthquake has something to do with the ever-widening wealth gap?” For Dragon TV’s news hosts to say things like this in the current political environment was truly gratifying. As for this moron from Shanghai, besides wasting food and tax payer dollars, what other purpose does he serve?…

There are problems with how the country manages construction:

…School construction is the worst. This is caused by a number of factors. First, there’s not enough capital. Schools in poor areas have small budgets and, unlike schools in the cities, they can’t collect huge fees, so they’re pressed for money. With construction, add in exploitation by government officials, education officials, school managers, etc. and you can imagine what’s left over for the actual building of schools.

When earthquake prevention standards are raised, government departments, major businesses, etc. will all appraise and reinforce their buildings. But these schools with their 70s-era buildings, no one pays attention to them. Because of this, the older school buildings are suffer from inadequate protection while the new buildings have been shoddily constructed. Among school buildings, there aren’t more than a few good ones…

The wealth gap has widened:

Our wealth gap is already among the worst in the world—much worse than in those odious capitalist countries. We are the world’s most capitalist “socialist” nation. Officials have already dimly admitted as much. In this earthquake, the people who have suffered the worst are for the most part the weakest people: students, poor people, peasants etc. For all these these lives to become a footnote in the history of this deformed economy—just a little bit too ruthless, no?

The transparency of disaster relief donations:

Reports circulating on the web say that in 2003 a northern province received 59 million in disaster relief funds from the central government. The provincial government kept 47 million for itself, sending 11 million to the city. The city government retained 10 million, sending one million to the civil affairs bureau. The civil affairs bureau held on to 50,000, leaving only 50,000 to be distributed as disaster relief funds. But even with this 50,000, only people with connections got their hands on it. Victims with no connections didn’t get a dime. Common people went to the provincial government to complain (maybe they figured it was only a problem with the lower levels of government). As a result, the provincial government got nervous and sent to the complainants off to be reeducated through manual labor.

Interestingly, despite laying into the government, the author seems to so far have avoided the dreaded ‘traitor’ label applied to newspaper editor Chang Ping and others in recent months.