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China comes to a standstill to honor earthquake victims

Exactly a week after the disaster, the nation pays a three-minute tribute to the 34,000 known dead.

May 20, 2008|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — For three minutes that seemed like an eternity, this very busy nation of 1.3 billion people Monday stopped shopping, producing, eating, talking, driving.

Instead, they stood still, heads bowed in mourning in commemoration of victims of last week's earthquake. The memorial began at 2:28 p.m., exactly one week after the deadly tremor. Many said it was the biggest display of mourning in China since the death of Mao Tse-tung in 1976. It was the first time ordinary Chinese were able to grieve collectively for others like themselves, as opposed to an emperor or Communist Party leader.

With each passing day since the quake, there is ever more to grieve. The Chinese government announced Monday that more than 200 rescue workers had perished over the last two days, mainly because of landslides set off by aftershocks. There was little detail provided, except that 158 were transportation workers who'd been buried while trying to repair a road leading to the epicenter in the town of Wenchuan in Sichuan province.

Fears of more aftershocks were fueled by a report from three provincial earthquake centers that a tremor between 6 and 7 in magnitude would strike over the next 24 hours.

That set off a panic in Sichuan province, and thousands slept out in the parks and streets. One family in Chengdu moved its bed to the median of a six-lane road. Highways out of the city were clogged with cars as people tried to flee.

The confirmed death toll from last week's earthquake, which the Chinese government now says was a magnitude 8, was raised Monday to more than 34,000 and was expected to climb to 50,000. More than 4 million people are homeless and 245,000 injured.

To mark the country's largest natural disaster in more than 30 years, the government declared a three-day mourning period beginning Sunday. Movie theaters were closed. Television stations canceled most entertainment programs, and movie networks such as HBO and Cinemax were blacked out. The Olympic torch relay was suspended until Wednesday. Flags flew at half-staff.

From Beijing's Tiananmen Square to Shanghai's Bund to the far-flung villages where rescue workers were still trying to dig out the living from the rubble, everything simply came to a halt. It was an amazing sight in a country that on a normal Monday afternoon would be such a hive of activity. Trains stopped in their tracks. Cars on the huge ring roads encircling Beijing stopped. Drivers in unison leaned on their horns so that a giant siren seemed to be shrieking.

People stood up inside buses and trains. Office workers stood on the sidewalks, students at their desks and on playgrounds. Police officers cradled their caps in their arms as they stood at attention. Many wept openly.

"We are so willing to share the suffering of the people of Sichuan, but except for donating this is the only thing we can do," said Zhou Shuyang, a 22-year-old student who joined thousands at Tiananmen Square.

Many were students, about the same age as those who had filled the square with demonstrations in 1989, while others old enough to have been those students brought their children, some carried up high on shoulders to view the scene.

At the end of the memorial, the crowd erupted in cries of "Long Live China!" with students waving the Chinese flag.

The burst of patriotism was apparent too at People's Square in Shanghai.

"Although we are a nation that suffered a lot of disasters, and this was another one, we are very united. We have confidence to conquer this event," said Zhuang Guifang, a retired accountant who teared up behind her sunglasses.

Zhuang said she was proud of the way her country was handling the earthquake, of how Premier Wen Jiabao flew to the disaster area within hours and of the rapid deployment of the military. Her entire family, from her mother in her 80s to her 3-year-old granddaughter, donated money for relief efforts.

"I have been in a debate for some time with my academic friends who believe that market reforms have ruined China's moral fabric," said Jing Jun, a sociologist at Beijing's Tsinghua University. "But I think this shows it isn't the case. There is still a fundamental level of decency and compassion in Chinese that has not been brought down by individualism."

With aftershocks continuing to rattle nerves and terrain, the continuing danger was underscored by the deaths of relief workers.

"Our rescue teams disregarded their own fatigue and the danger of death, kept dashing out there," Dai Dongchang, a Transportation Ministry official, said in an interview posted on a government website. Those killed were in buses and construction vehichles buried in mud.

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barbara.demick@latimes.com

Times staff writers Don Lee in Shanghai and Mark Magnier in Chengdu, China, contributed to this report.

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