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After Quake, China Faces Daunting Reconstruction Challenges

May 27, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Following the cessation of rescue and recovery efforts, quake-struck Sichuan province begins the arduous task of rebuilding. Margaret Warner reports from China on the quake's aftermath and Beijing's preparations for the Olympics.

GWEN IFILL: Margaret, it’s good to see you again. We hear every day about continuing aftershocks, a rising death toll. And today everyone is watching this evacuation of a dam in Sichuan province, one of dozens, I guess, that were actually created by the quake?

MARGARET WARNER: That’s right, Gwen. These big landslides came down and basically blocked rivers. And there’s one particularly perilous one, though there’s clearly dozens of these impromptu lakes that have sprung up. But one in particular is huge and keeps rising, because more rivers are feeding into it.

So the Chinese officials had said by midnight tonight they were going to try to evacuate another 80,000 people downriver from this, this sort of structure. You can’t call it a dam; it’s basically a landslide.

But, meanwhile, they’ve got this huge rescue or this huge operation in there, a digging operation trying to cut a sluice sort of from this lake into a reservoir way down the way.

So tonight it was announced, just about a half-hour ago, that after two days of heavy equipment and all kinds of man and explosives, and everything else, they’ve gotten 50 meters done, but it’s only a quarter of the distance it has to go.

So it’s a scary situation. At the same time, it’s a very compelling narrative, and it’s being heavily covered by state television. They’ve got reporters embedded with the military workers in there, and it’s the one compelling narrative left now that there are no heroic rescues left to narrate.

GWEN IFILL: And at the same time, reports are that there are about 5 million people homeless, and presumably the health infrastructure is not what it was. Is there any concern about disease?

MARGARET WARNER: There’s absolutely huge concern. And, in fact, today I went to the briefing at the state council, which they hold every day about the progress on the quake, where they announce the death toll and so on.

They turned it over entirely to the health ministry. And they had an extensive briefing about the danger of epidemic. And they said the hot weather’s coming, the rainy season’s coming. There’s a huge danger.

The operation they described sounded very extensive, thousands of medical workers out in the area, trying to monitor and stay on top of any outbreak of any even kind of common symptom, like diarrhea, because if it occurs in clusters, that will tell them that maybe an epidemic is beginning to grow in one area.

And they have a reporting mechanism that, every 24 hours, they’ll be able to collate this data and look at it as they described it. And they even talked about having very new, high-tech I.T., as they put it. That is, in areas with no electricity, the medical workers have solar-powered cell phones, which I’ve never heard of.

So they are clearly worried about it. They’re warning the public about it. And they said they also have to start a huge education campaign with the survivors to teach them how to dispose of human waste, food waste, and all the other kind of sanitary aspects of life in the absence of being in their own homes.

Quake succeeds in place of Olympics

Margaret Warner
Senior Correspondent
So far, the Olympics had not been bringing that about, but that China's response to the earthquake has made them seem both competent and humane, in the eyes of the rest of the world.

GWEN IFILL: As you go to these briefings and you listen to the government officials speak about this, is there a heightened sensitivity to foreign scrutiny?

MARGARET WARNER: I don't know if it's scrutiny, Gwen, because the government actually understands that this whole quake or its response to the quake has, if anything, redounded to their credit internationally.

And there is a lot of coverage, again, in the media about various international officials praising the Chinese government for what it's done.

I thought the most telling moment today was at a foreign ministry briefing. A question came about an international human rights report supposedly coming out tomorrow, criticizing China on its handling of Tibet, and the foreign ministry spokesman gave the standard answer about, you know, human rights is improving here, and we've improved people's economic well-being, which is a human right.

But then he said this quake has showed that the Chinese government is putting people first. This quake has caused the world to take a fresh look at China.

And ironically, this is what they hoped the Olympics would do. So far, the Olympics had not been bringing that about, but that China's response to the earthquake has made them seem both competent and humane, in the eyes of the rest of the world.

GWEN IFILL: Is this for domestic consumption, as well?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, Gwen. The government is very pleased that its response to the quake and the whole disaster of the quake has really united the Chinese people. And they're very anxious to preserve that.

You are not seeing any reports, for instance, in the Chinese media about what we read about in the foreign media, that is, rising anger out of Sichuan province about who is responsible for especially the shoddy school construction.

I'm also told by someone close to at least some people in the leadership that the government is also a little worried about -- or some are -- about whether there's going to be a rise in a sense of despair.

You know, for two weeks, the coverage was this -- as I said, of these heroic rescues. It was very upbeat in that sense. It was the nation pulling together to meet a tragedy. Now it's just one piece of relentless bad news after the next.

There are reports of rising suicide rates out in Sichuan. But the government also very much wants to keep, I'm told, the confidence of the people here.

And so, again -- and in this country, state television is a great reflection of what the government's trying to do -- you're seeing some interesting, rather boostery -- I wouldn't call it interesting, but boostery programming on, with little vignettes of different figures saying, you know, "If we stay strong, we can still achieve our dreams."

And as I was watching some of this last night, I thought, "This isn't news now. I mean, this is public relations."

GWEN IFILL: Margaret Warner on the ground for us in China. Thanks again.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you, Gwen.