China: Earthquake’s toll of death and destruction rising

Over 12,000 dead and 19,000 buried

China is in shock. The death toll from Monday’s massive earthquake in Sichuan province, 12,000 at the time of writing, is rising by the hour. With rescue work now hampered by rain and heavy storms, state media are warning the number of dead can soar.

This was a powerful earthquake, the worst to hit China for 32 years. Because of stormy weather and buckled roads, it has taken until today for troops to reach Wenchuan county, the epicentre of the quake, 74km to the northeast of Sichuan’s capital, Chengdu. Today, US seismologists upgraded the initial tremor to a 7.9, from 7.8, magnitude earthquake. The devastation covered a huge area because the earthquake was centered about 10km below ground, according to the website of the US Geological Survey. It was felt as far away as Thailand and Vietnam. The China Earthquake Administration said the quake had been felt across 16 regions of China including Tibet, Guizhou, Shanghai and Beijing – 1,600 km away.

The worst casualty levels are feared to be in the Mianzhu area of Sichuan, where 10,000 people are still reported ”buried” under rubble from collapsed buildings. In Dujiangyan – halfway between Chengdu and the epicentre – about 900 teenagers were buried under a collapsed three-storey school building. Media reported utter devastation in Dujiangyan, with collapsed buildings and bodies in the streets. In Beichuan county, just east of the epicenter, 80% of the buildings collapsed and some 10,000 people were injured on top of the 3,000 to 5,000 killed in the district, Xinhua News Agency said. Early reports say 8 schools in the region have completely or partially collapsed. Deaths have also been confirmed in three other provinces and in the mega-city of Chongqing. Around 213 are reported dead in Gansu province and 92 in Shaanxi.

A 40-wagon freight train in Gansu province was derailed by the quake, spilling petrol tanks which burst into flame: a fire which is still burning. In Shifang city, in Sichuan, two chemical plants collapsed burying hundreds of workers and causing a toxic leak of more than 80 tonnes of liquid ammonia.

Terrifying aftershocks

The Sichuan seismology bureau has reported 313 aftershocks. A strong aftershock measuring 6.1 on the Richter scale rocked Chengdu today, Tuesday (13 May). Parts of the 10 million-population city were in darkness. An Israeli student based in the city told the Associated Press that there were power and water outages there.

“Traffic jams, no running water, power outs, everyone sitting in the streets, patients evacuated from hospitals sitting outside and waiting,” the student said. The death toll has climbed to 959 in Chengdu, according to Xinhua.

Fifty thousand PLA troops have been dispatched to Sichuan, but rescue work has been severely obstructed by storms, massive rockslides, and blocked roads. Rain and thick clouds made it impossible for military helicopters to land. Parachutists from the PLA cancelled a rescue drop due to the storms. Meanwhile, despite the storms, tens of thousands are sleeping outdoors either because there are no buildings left standing or for fear of aftershocks. There are urgent appeals for tents, food, blood, medicines and above all for trained medical personnel to be lifted into the worst-affected areas. The epicentre of the earthquake, Wenchuan county, is in the Aba Tibetan-Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, where 46 % of the population are Han Chinese, 18% are Tibetan and 34% are ethnic Qiang. The Aba region was the scene of large ethnic Tibetan protests in March which were brutally suppressed, with 13 Tibetans reportedly shot dead.

A socialist programme to meet disasters

The massive earthquake, following this year’s severe winter disaster, poses major challenges for China’s one-party state just three months before it hosts the Olympics. True to form the central government dispatched premier Wen Jiabao to the earthquake zone, to demonstrate its ”hands-on” approach to crises. ”In the face of the disaster, what’s most important is calmness, confidence, courage and powerful command,” he said to journalists in Sichuan. But as the winter crisis showed, the bureaucratic top-down approach of the Chinese state (and most others around the world), makes it harder to mobilise mass voluntary efforts to meet such a situation. Li Chengyun, Vice-Governor of Sichuan, called on both officials and the masses in Sichuan to fight the disaster and rescue themselves. But the ruling party eschews all steps by “the masses” to organise themselves independently of the officialdom, making absolutely decisive mass mobilisation an onerous problem in China.

The central government has distributed 360 million yuan in relief funds to the disaster-hit areas on May 12 and 13, but such sums are wholly inadequate. More than 280 billion yuan has been spent by the government on the Olympic Games. Taxes on company profits, reduced from 33% to 25% last year, should be immediately increased to finance the disaster relief work and the massive reconstruction programme that will be needed in Sichuan and other affected regions.

Socialists and labour activists in China share the grief of the masses over this terrible disaster. But this does not mean we place confidence in this government to meet the crisis with the necessary policies. A grassroots’ and workers’ earthquake emergency programme is needed, to insure speculators and profiteers do not take advantage of food and other shortages to line their pockets! And in every such disaster – from Burma’s horrific cyclone, to the 2004 tsunami – the problem of corrupt officials misappropriating aid, either for financial gain or to further their own political ends is widespread. And not only the officialdom are to blame. In Sri Lanka, the state auditor general in September 2005 – nine months after the tsunami killed over 40,000 – noted that out of 1.16 billion dollars committed, only 13.5 percent had actually been spent. Aid workers awarded themselves huge salaries and excessive prices were charged for raw materials used in reconstruction work. All this, as the CWI in Sri Lanka explained, because the relief work was not under democratic control!

Democratic control

Such problems can only be prevented by the setting up of democratic committees in all earthquake-hit areas, to receive and distribute relief aid in a fair and non-profit making manner. Similar mass democratic structures are needed to prevent food price speculation. Already there are warnings in the state media of new inflation shocks, especially for food prices. April’s CPI figures rose again to 8.5%, following a small decrease in March. Food prices jumped 22.1% in April, and tens of millions of poor families are experiencing serious hardship.

This applies even more to the problem of rebuilding the devastated areas. Valid questions are already being aired on internet sites: Why were so many schools and hospitals wholly or partly collapsed, yet government offices fared much better? During the winter chaos in China, it was discovered that massive cheating in the construction sector, using faulty or substandard materials, exacerbated the collapse of the electrical power grid in many parts of southern China, especially in Guizhou province. Electrical power poles, built in the 1950s under the planned economy, proved to be far more resilient than poles built in the 1990s, which were found to have been manufactured without the legally required steel reinforcing bars, and consequently snapped, bringing down power lines. Corrupt building practices may also emerge as a contributory factor in this latest tragedy.

It is against this background that socialists and some other democracy activists in China are discussing and exploring the possibility of mobilising urgent relief contributions independently of the state agencies, relying on the spirit of generosity but also the untapped skills and initiative of working people, students and poor farmers. A workers’ and grassroots’ aid initiative is clearly sorely needed amid this terrible catastrophe, although it will unfortunately come up against huge problems of illegality and repression because the Chinese state fears all independent activity.

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May 2008