Saturday, 12 May 2018

Sichuan Earthquake 10 Years On

Many buildings collapsed during the magnitude 8 earthquake in 2008
Today is the 10th anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake that killed at least 87,000 and injured 370,000

I distinctly remember that day. I was in Beijing working in the office on the sixth floor of a low-rise building and at 2.28pm, I suddenly felt woozy, like I had drank something strong and was feeling the effects in my head.

Except I wasn't getting drunk, but feeling the powerful reverberations of the earthquake that was magnitude 8 on the Richter scale, the epicenter in Wenchuan county, in Sichuan province.

A memorial clock perpetually stops at 2.28pm
The following days and nights were constant updates of the horrific scenes of utter devastation, with many buildings leveled to the ground. It was discovered 7,444 schools were destroyed in the quake, while other buildings nearby were still standing.

Many of the dead were children (over 5,400), which led many grieving parents to ask about the construction of these institutions -- to them they seemed like "tofu schools", buildings that were shoddily built.

Premier at the time Wen Jiabao promised to launch an investigation to find out the truth, but 10 years on parents are still waiting. They are angry and disappointed not much has been revealed, let alone not much compensation, which probably makes them feel there's some kind of cover up.

Ai Weiwei began his activism with the Sichuan earthquake
The tragedy also sparked citizen reporting -- as many victims were not named at first, some people like Tang Zuoren and artist Ai Weiwei created their own activism with an army of volunteers by trying to find out all the names of those who died.

At first a large number of names were missing, but thanks to the efforts of volunteer       activists, as many people they could find were accounted for. I remember years later seeing a piece of work where Ai set up a small room and inside the walls were covered with computer-generated charts of the student's name, age, and sex.

It was a stark and factual reminder of a tragedy.

This marked the beginning of Ai's activism in China, that later led him to have a brain hemorrhage thanks to Chinese police beating his head because Ai dared to try to find the truth.

Shoes still lying around 10 years later.
Also this was the last time that reporters in China could go outside their city, county, province to report on a major story. Perhaps because there were so many negatives -- the roads were blocked and hard to get heavy equipment there, the chances of finding people alive were less apparent with each passing day.

As a result, since then, when tragedies occur, all domestic media outlets must use official state media, particularly Xinhua stories. No one can do independent reporting anymore.

Meanwhile the government quickly turned this into a national tragedy for propaganda -- with official days of mourning, and there was so much money donated. Did it really go to the victims? We don't know.

The government can't stop people from remembering this incident, But what happens from now on? Will the authorities finally tell the truth of what happened to the people who seemed to have died unnecessarily? What comfort can leaders give them?

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