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Quake Is Formidable Challenge to China’s Government

May 14, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Rescue and relief efforts continue in China as the death toll from Monday's 7.9-magnitude earthquake neared 15,000 and is expected to rise, with tens of thousands still buried in rubble. An analyst examines how the country and its government have handled the disaster.

GWEN IFILL: Three days after the Sichuan earthquake struck, rescue efforts continue in China. We start with a report from Bill Neely of Independent Television News on the road from Chengdu to the epicenter.

BILL NEELY, ITV News Correspondent: China’s army on the march to the heart of their national disaster, tens of thousands on the road to rescue the tens of thousands of their countrymen still trapped or missing. And we went with them.

It is impossible to drive these roads. The only way to reach the dozens of devastated towns and villages is on foot.

These troops have another 25 miles to march before they reach their target town. In addition, 9,000 paratroopers are being flown into the epicenter of the quake. The Chinese army is throwing everything it has at this disaster.

China’s leaders have ordered in 50,000 troops, determined to show the world they will overcome this disaster. Even a huge dam doesn’t stand in their way.

Into a town just off the road, we join a rescue team. They’re on the run, too. Voices have been heard in a block of flats, survivors 48 hours after the tremor. They find four old women who’d been playing cards. Three are dead. The fourth very gently is lowered down.

“Hold her tight,” they shout. She is bruised, but at 82, she’s lucid and she’s lucky.

In a nearby street, they dig and tear with their hands at the fallen concrete, but this was not a tale that ended well. The shop owner, a wife, mother, and sister to those who labored was found dead.

And along the streets of the towns near the epicenter, the dead lie everywhere beneath blankets or concrete, two young men and an elderly woman here, unclaimed. The heavy machinery is a sign that survivors are unlikely, fewer and fewer now being found.

And all along this road, there are the terrible cries of mothers who’ve lost their children.

GWEN IFILL: Next, desperation in the town of Hanwang. ITN’s Lindsey Hilsum reports.

LINDSEY HILSUM, ITV News Correspondent: “Please,” she cries, “get my husband out.” How many are trapped like him in the rubble of Hanwang? No one knows yet, but hundreds, maybe thousands, are missing here.

This building housed the office of a mining company. There are people trapped inside. A body is visible amongst the rubble. The crane arrived. Maybe they can dig people out; maybe someone could even be alive.

George Chen’s brother-in-law, Joe Yoyun, was a sales manager working in the office, aged 43.

Can you just tell me what’s happening?

GEORGE CHEN, Chinese Citizen: We just believe there are about six or eight people dying inside because they were jammed inside the staircase. We just want to give them hope, since we have manpower here.

LINDSEY HILSUM: A rescue worker is winched up. By looking down into the building, he can assess whether there’s anything they can do.

GEORGE CHEN: And, you know, at that time when the earthquake happened, they were trying to escape. However, they were stuck up inside a staircase. They just don’t have the chance — did not have the chance.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Do you think they’ve…

GEORGE CHEN: We want to give them hope. Be careful.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Falling masonry makes everyone flee. Eventually, the rescue workers say they can do nothing right now, not even get the corpses out.

As the crane is about to leave, hope turns to despair, turns to anger and desperation. And then, new fear: an aftershock sends everyone fleeing again.

As we drove around the area near Hanwang, we saw people camped at the side of the road. Some are begging for food. They need water.

A small van which brought a few bottles to the town of Manchu was mobbed.

Volunteers, some mobilized by the Red Cross, have set up a field hospital in a market. The injured were stunned and silent. Lives were destroyed in less than a minute.

China's response to the quake

Ming Wan
George Mason University
[T]he Chinese government has become smarter when it comes to natural disasters. They used to be very nervous about this, and they think that everything is political.

GWEN IFILL: Judy Woodruff has more.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How has China and its government responded to the quake? And what does the response say about changes in that country?

For that, we go to Ming Wan. He's a professor of government and politics at George Mason University. He was born in China and is now a U.S. citizen.

Thank you very much for being with us. What is it the amount of coverage that we're seeing and the quality of coverage we're seeing? How different is that from what we're accustomed to seeing from inside the country of your birth?

MING WAN: This is dramatic media coverage over this earthquake. They compare with the last big earthquake in 1976. I was in Beijing at the time. There was no coverage. Everyone was living in the street, and it was all rumor.

But this time, you can see that they are not blocking Chinese journalists from reporting this and they are not blocking foreign journalists. This is definitely a sign of progress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why is the government being so open this time? Because, as you say, previous -- whether it's a natural disaster or just two months ago, the protests in Tibet, very strict rules against coverage.

MING WAN: Well, since the SARS crisis, there has been...


MING WAN: Yes, in 2004, and there have been sort of efforts in China to improve the mechanism of informing the public. China has become a more complex society and, therefore, is also more vulnerable to all these crises.

And, also, publics demand information. They should. And people want facts -- you know, and it helps them make decision, you know, in a time of crisis. If they don't have information, often there is a panic, which actually is worse.

And, also, you can -- obviously, everyone thinks that, you know, there is a contrast between how they allowed the coverage of this event vis-a-vis the demonstrations, the Tibet demonstrations a while ago. And there was also contrast in how the Chinese government is handling this crisis with Myanmar government's handling the situation. And I do not know...


MING WAN: The Burma.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... cyclone and the terrible loss of life.

MING WAN: Right. I do not know whether the Chinese government consciously is trying to learn a lesson, but suddenly that contrast is on people's minds.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much of this do you think, Professor Wan, is due to just an explosion of communications technology, the fact that you not only have cell phones, you have the availability of cameras, the Internet? How much of that, do you think is...

MING WAN: It's really important. And, you know, with so many people with cell phones, blogging, and the information, you know, will be out. They cannot control it anyway.

And I think the Chinese government has become smarter when it comes to natural disasters. They used to be very nervous about this, and they think that everything is political. And you...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even a natural disaster?

MING WAN: Even natural disasters. Now they seem to make a contrast between manmade disasters and natural disasters.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A political event, such as the Tibet -- the protests in Tibet, up against something like this.

Construction standards in China

Ming Wan
George Mason University
[A]fter the Tangshan earthquake that devastated the area near Beijing in 1976, the Chinese government has been trying to improve the building codes for the past two decades at least.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you, turn the subject a bit, and ask you about construction standards in China. I was reading a number of stories today about people asking why some buildings, particularly school buildings, office buildings, gave way, others didn't. How much discussion is there about that? And how open is that discussion?

MING WAN: Well, this is -- we'll have to see whether the government actually will allow people to ask deeper questions. We already hear discussions.

Part of the reason is that Sichuan hasn't experienced a huge earthquake for decades now...

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is Sichuan province, where the earthquake hit.

MING WAN: Right. I think the last time was in 1933. But after the Tangshan earthquake that devastated the area near Beijing in 1976, the Chinese government has been trying to improve the building codes for the past two decades at least.

But the problem is really whether they are being enforced. And you read in Chinese media about corruption, putting the public works, school buildings, and sometimes they label some of the buildings tofu projects, because the...

JUDY WOODRUFF: They label them what? I'm sorry.

MING WAN: Tofu projects, because they're really soft. There is no chance in earthquakes like this.

And near the epicenter, you know, even if they are built up to code, because they advise 7.0, which probably will not stand near the epicenter, but suddenly if all the buildings are reinforced, built to code, we should not see the scale of the devastation.

And it's particularly sad to look at all the school buildings, and hundreds and thousands of students are trapped or buried.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So many schools and so many stories of students trapped. And I was reading several stories about buildings that had collapsed. There were no evidence of steel reinforcements. Now, this is anecdotal at this point. We don't know what they're going to find once they look more deeply into it.

MING WAN: Yes, and that's the sort of questions I'm sure people will ask. And then, you know, we'll see whether the Chinese government will allow that.

China's interior province

Ming Wan
George Mason University
[Sichuan] has the largest population, more people than any provinces, if you include Tunching, which is now separate administered unit. It has more than 100 million people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What more should we know about this part of China? We hear so much about the eastern part of the country, Beijing, Shanghai. What about Sichuan? Tell us about that place.

MING WAN: Sichuan actually is a really interesting place. And it has the largest population, more people than any provinces, if you include Tunching, which is now separate administered unit. It has more than 100 million people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A hundred million?

MING WAN: Right, it's a large place. It's a basin. It has fertile land and mountains around. It has a rich history and traditions and cultures. It's sort of considered to be China's interior, but in some ways it's actually different from other provinces.

It is not as wealthy as coastal provinces, but there's considerably more development than some of the other interior provinces.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Much more developed than, I think, many people had realized, how many cities there are with over a million population?

MING WAN: Yes. And they have good universities and research institutes. And it's now a manufacturing base, and they're hoping to integrate more into the global economy.

And part of the problem was lack of transportation and communication. And it is improving now. And I think it's just a matter of time for them to catch up.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it's tragic that it's caused -- that it's been this earthquake that's caused the focus on it, but we are learning more about that part of the country.

Professor Ming Wan, thank you very much for being with us.

MING WAN: Thank you.