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China orders richer cities to help quake area

The edict calls for financial and technical aid. Survivors show a heavy reliance on the central government.

May 24, 2008|Don Lee | Times Staff Writer

MIANZHU, CHINA — China's central government Friday ordered its wealthier provinces and cities to give immediate financial and technical aid to communities devastated by last week's earthquake.

The order, which pairs cities such as Shanghai and Beijing with less-developed areas in Sichuan province, highlights China's awareness of the enormous task ahead, of rebuilding entire towns and resettling about 5 million displaced people. Banks were ordered to forgive debts owed by earthquake victims.

Premier Wen Jiabao said today that the quake killed more than 60,000. The death toll "may further climb to a level of 70,000, 80,000 or more," he said as he toured the disaster area with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The government also said crews were securing 15 sources of radiation buried under debris, but it did not provide specific information about the sources. An additional 35 sources that also had been covered with rubble already were secured, officials said.

Wu Xiaoqing, vice minister of environmental protection, said at a news conference Friday that all nuclear facilities in Sichuan province were safe and that there had not been any leak of radioactive substances into the environment.

The edict calling for economic and technical aid may take some of the pressure off the central government, as most earthquake victims appear to be waiting for the central government to take care of their needs.

In interviews in refugee camps, hospitals and tents outside their damaged homes, residents said they were counting on the government to provide housing, cover their medical bills, offer loans to rebuild businesses and help them get jobs.

"We hold big hopes that the government will solve our problems," said Wang Yanjiang, 74, who has been living in a bright blue tent in Mianzhu Stadium since his family's apartment in nearby Hanwang collapsed.

His 42-year-old son, Wang Duoyun, whose small tea shop was destroyed, said he expected to rebuild. "I hear the government will provide low-interest loans for people and a tax-free policy."

The heavy reliance on the central government shows that many people believe that they have no place else to turn. Few Chinese, particularly in rural areas, have life or property insurance. It's hard to get micro-loans for small businesses from banks. And although many citizens have volunteered and donated money to help victims, there are relatively few Chinese nongovernmental organizations, social groups or private programs to deliver disaster relief.

"On the one hand, the central government's swift reaction and rescue efforts won more support from the public and improved the government's reputation among ordinary people," said Hu Xingdou, a professor of economics at Beijing Institute of Technology. "On the other hand, this showed that China is still a largely government-driven and -controlled society. . . . Therefore, all the rescue efforts and disaster relief, from refugee arrangement to the rebuilding plans, design, investment and construction -- everything becomes government's responsibility."

Analysts say that could be dangerous for the Communist Party leadership because of the potential for backlash if those high expectations don't materialize. People in Hanwang, a part of the city of Mianzhu that in many places now looks like a huge junkyard, recalled how Wen came to the area a day after the May 12 disaster and told cheering residents that Hanwang would be rebuilt to look more beautiful than before.

Mianzhu, where most of the more than 500,000 residents were made homeless last week, was matched with Jiangsu province, a prosperous area on the east coast. Shanghai was paired with Dujiangyan, a hard-hit resort area near Chengdu; Beijing with Shifang; and Guangdong province with Wenchuan, the epicenter of the magnitude 7.9 temblor.

China's Ministry of Civil Affairs didn't specify how much aid should be given but suggested that the commitment would include providing temporary shelter as well as long-term economic development.

Among the most immediate needs are tents. At Mianzhu Stadium, the site of one of the larger camps, 6,688 people were living in about 390 tents as of Friday, said Zhou Jing, one of the camp's managers. That's an average of about 17 per tent.

"There are too many people here jammed together," Zhou said. "We really worry about an epidemic."

In a tent numbered F-1, Cao Xianqiong, 49, was dozing off on her bed, a wooden board set on top of bricks. Cao said she was mixing concrete for a builder when the earth shook her village, Qingping, and everybody was covered by dirt from a landslide.

She said soldiers from the People's Liberation Army rescued them, carrying some of them on their backs over the mountain. In her first few nights at the camp, Cao said, she slept fitfully. But she and her family were beginning to ponder what they would do next.

"We are used to working and laboring every day. It's very uncomfortable here killing time," Cao said, her dark, strong hands reflecting decades of farming potatoes and corn.

But she said that her house collapsed and that Qingping could be washed away by a "barrier lake" formed by the earthquake.

"Right now, we have a place to eat, to sleep and clothes to wear," she said.

"We don't have a home but we have confidence. The government will arrange something for us."

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don.lee@latimes.com

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Cao Jun in The Times' Shanghai Bureau contributed to this report.

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