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Survivor unrest prods China to act

Beijing embarks on a $10-billion rebuilding effort as it curbs media reports amid growing victim discontent.

May 22, 2008|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

DUJIANGYAN, CHINA — China moved to contain some of the political fallout of last week's devastating earthquake with the launch of a major spending program Wednesday amid growing survivor impatience and a tightening of media control.

Beijing ordered state agencies to cut their budgets by 5% to help fund a $10-billion reconstruction effort, the State Council, China's Cabinet, said in a statement.

Premier Wen Jiabao also called for a halt to new state projects that are not earthquake-related.

Only one person was reported pulled out of wreckage alive Wednesday, a 38-year-old woman trapped in a tunnel in Shifang, compared with several dozen a day shortly after the magnitude 7.9 earthquake hit May 12.

Though the government has generally received good marks for responding quickly to China's worst natural disaster in more than 30 years, tempers are starting to flare.

About 200 angry people surrounded an aid official Tuesday at a camp in a sports stadium in Mianyang, shouting: "We're hungry!" "We need food!" and "What's wrong with our government?"

Members of the crowd, some of whom had walked for 12 hours from remote mountain villages, said they were told they were ineligible for food aid because government officials could not be found to give them the required identity card.

State media said the government planned to rebuild Beichuan city, one of the hardest-hit communities, at a new location.

"We came here from the mountains because we heard there was something to eat," said Wang Guangmei, 34, who's been sharing a tent at the Mianyang aid camp with 24 people from her village. "But now that we're here, we can't get any without the card."

A Mianyang County government official said he wasn't aware of the problem, referring the issue to the Sichuan provincial government, which declined to comment.

Beijing also appeared to be reining in the media after a week of relative freedom in reporting.

Many major newspapers Wednesday featured an identical picture of government leaders mourning. The propaganda ministry tends to insist on uniformity when an issue is sensitive.

New permit requirements for media reporting in the area have been imposed and checks stepped up. A policeman Wednesday stopped a car of foreign journalists heading to Dujiangyan on the grounds that, though they had proper credentials, their taxi driver did not. At a school site, a People's Liberation Army officer questioned reporters on whether they had interviewed anyone. Some of the hardest-hit areas are now off-limits to the media, ostensibly for safety reasons.

Internet filtering has been stepped up after websites ran postings that accused local officials of taking relief supplies for their relatives first and asked why so many schools collapsed, killing thousands of children.

Even the state media initially aired some of the growing frustration.

"I've been waiting here for two hours for a tent, and the government hasn't told us anything," the official New China News Agency wrote, quoting a woman surnamed Chen who refused to give her first name amid fear of government harassment. "The local government has really been useless."

In a bid to return a modicum of normality to the battered population of a quake region roughly the size of Connecticut, the government is working hard to get schools up and running.

At the Juyuan Elementary School, which suffered minimal damage, classes are expected to resume within a few days once the threat of aftershocks diminishes.

"It's important to get children back to school and give them a sense of purpose," said Peng Hong, 42, principal of the year-old school, which had no deaths among its 2,200-member student body.

In an adjoining field, workers were busy putting up temporary classrooms for students who survived the collapse of much of nearby Juyuan Middle School, built in 1986, where an estimated 900 students died under the rubble.

"I'm very keen to get back to school," said Wang Yating, 15, a student who survived the collapse. "I'm very sad. But it's made those in my school who survived pull together."

Survivors wrote notes to deceased classmates, which they affixed to a temporary classroom. "May my dead brother and sister be in heaven," said one. "We should turn sorrow into hope."

Half a mile away, paper wreaths and a bouquet of flowers lay on what had been the middle school. The entire area has been covered with lime, although it was not enough to mask the smell of something decomposing under the debris. Nearby, a small tape recorder played an eerie loop of Buddhist chants beside a note of condolences.

With the official death toll at 41,353 and expected to rise beyond 50,000, the focus of rescue workers has shifted to disposing of corpses. In Beichuan, a giant yellow earthmover dumped bodies into a pit dusted with lime Monday as a police forensics officer took what appeared to be a DNA sample from a body.

The State Council said 80% of the corpses found in Sichuan province had been cremated or buried.

Three members of a Dutch search-and-rescue team in Hanwang, their four dogs in tow, worked a small patch of rubble Wednesday. When one of the dogs barked, signaling it smelled a body, the team would put a red ribbon on the spot for possible recovery. Within a short time, there were four ribbons.


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