Saturday, May 21, 2011

12/05 POINT OF VIEW / Nobuyoshi Sakajiri: Sichuan earthquake-hit areas now attract tourists

photoNobuyoshi Sakajiri (The Asahi Shimbun)

Nearly three years after a massive earthquake hit China's Sichuan province, a young woman was posing in front of a collapsed building, making the V-sign with her hand while her male companion took her photograph. The stricken area of the deadly May 12, 2008, earthquake that left about 87,000 people dead or missing has turned into a "tourist spot."

In Yingxiu, a town in Wenchuan county, Sichuan, which was close to the epicenter, about half of the slightly more than 10,000 residents were killed and around 90 percent of the town's buildings collapsed. Tourists who visit the town on sightseeing buses are greeted by a signboard that shows a guide map of the "ruins of the Yingxiu epicenter."

Yingxiu's Xuankou middle school where 43 students were killed has preserved part of the school building that fell down. A sign at the entrance carries the words of Li Changchun, a member of the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee who oversees the party's propaganda activities, to make the site a "base" for education of "national solidarity" and "patriotism."

The town also has a promenade where people can walk for pleasure and a "tourist center." Some of the newly built homes for earthquake survivors have been turned into souvenir shops and restaurants that serve tourists. One of them even carries a sign advertising Italian-style ice cream.

A monument dedicated to the victims of the earthquake stands on a hill overlooking the school. Local residents were selling chrysanthemums for visitors who lay them before the monument. A set of three flowers sold for 5 yuan (about 60 yen or 74 cents). A 42-year-old woman who lost her teenage daughter in the earthquake was selling photos of the school before and after its collapse.

"Houses were built on the land where I used to farm," she said. "I cannot make ends meet unless I make some cash."

Sichuan's Beichuan Qiang autonomous county, which suffered catastrophic damage, moved to a neighboring county where it built new homes, a county office and schools. It opened the ruined city area to the public and operates a shuttle bus that carries tourists to and from a parking lot for a fare of 13 yuan. It is also considering construction of an aerial tramway to carry tourists to a hill that commands a view of the ruined area.

As part of the efforts to rebuild the stricken area, the Chinese government paired up 19 provinces and cities outside Sichuan province with local governments in the quake-hit zone.

The gross provincial product of Guangdong province, which paired with Wenchuan county, tops Indonesia's gross domestic product. The situation also presents a golden opportunity for local government executives who want to join party leadership to prove themselves. The partner provinces and cities are vying with one another to rebuild the infrastructure of the stricken areas. Some of them chose to make the most of the earthquake damage to attract tourists in defiance of opposition by bereaved families who are still suffering the loss of their loved ones.

Meanwhile, holding parties responsible for slipshod construction of buildings that fell apart is making little progress. Such jerry-built structures are likened to buildings made with the "bean curd refuse construction method," a term coined by an indignant Zhu Rongji, who was Chinese premier in 1998 when embankments of the Yangtze River broke during a massive flood because of sloppy construction work. The Great Sichuan Earthquake killed more than 5,000 elementary school and older students. While slipshod construction of school buildings became a social problem, exactly how many of them in Wenchuan and Beichuan were destroyed has yet to be made public.

Three years ago, Premier Wen Jiabao entered the stricken area on the day the earthquake hit. He visited Beichuan middle school where more than 1,000 students were killed and encouraged survivors with tears in his eyes.

Despite such circumstances, the school was not included in the list of designated "ruins." A police box was built in front of the school site where rubble is piled up. Signs of "no photography allowed" are posted here and there. In the last three years, many lawyers who supported parents who lost their children were arrested.

In mid-April, as I was walking around the "ruins," I came across an entourage of high-ranking officials of the Publicity Department of the Communist Party's Central Committee. I was told they were visiting the stricken area to make a preliminary inspection for a memorial service to be held May 12 with the attendance of Premier Wen. About half an hour later, their motorcade of 15 cars left the area without stopping at the site where the school once stood.

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Nobuyoshi Sakajiri is the chief of The Asahi Shimbun's China General Bureau in Beijing.

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