May 12, 2010 / 7:50 AM / 10 years ago

China quake rebuilding rush shows power and pitfalls

YINGXIU, China (Reuters) - Construction cranes, armies of workers and a forest of homes have replaced the corpses and shattered buildings that were all that remained of Yingxiu two years ago.

Workers reinforce the ruins of the Sichuan earthquake in Beichuan county, Sichuan province May 8, 2009. REUTERS/Stringer

This small town in a steep valley was one of the worst-hit places in China’s devastating earthquake of May 12, 2008.

Now it is at the heart of feverish rebuilding efforts, under pressure from top leaders to complete a three-year reconstruction plan ahead of time.

China’s ambitious blueprint for recovery from a disaster that killed nearly 90,000 people is testament to its rising wealth and the mobilizing ability of its government. The ruling Communist Party has promoted the effort as a model for national unity.

But survivors and experts said misspending and grandiose planning could undermine the rebuilding, just as a similar top-down approach threatens rapid growth in the rest of China.

Quake survivor Yao Xianqun lives in a makeshift shelter built from wood salvaged from her ruined farmhouse, overlooking frantic construction on houses a contractor is rushing to complete.

“I wish they could have just given us the money and let us get on with building for ourselves,” sighed the 53-year-old.

All the new homes will have ethnic exteriors, intended to reflect the local Qiang culture. Yao says the new house will be cramped and dark and too close her neighbors.

Cash and support for the massive recovery are swelled by a government stimulus plan and officials driven by high public emotion about the quake.

So far, 740 billion yuan ($108.4 billion) has been spent on rebuilding the quake-hit parts of Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces, the Xinhua news agency reported on Wednesday.

Motorways punch through mountains at the heart of the devastated zone, where whole villages are already rebuilt. Yingxiu, where more than 6,500 people died, has been mostly evacuated to allow construction at top speed.

“Lots of things have been done well in comparison to other disaster recovery experiences,” said Dan Abramson, an associate professor of urban planning at the University of Washington, who is working on reconstruction in Sichuan.

But official haste means new buildings are flung up in ways that could damage the town’s longer-term revival by not considering how the land or the buildings will be used, he said.

“Local officials are running around trying to get everything done and spend all the money,” said Abramson.


Much of the construction in Yingxiu was funded and steered by Dongguan, a wealthy export center in faraway Guangdong province.

Wealthier provinces and cities across China were each given responsibility for rebuilding part of the quake zone under a central government effort to share the burden of recovery.

About 64 billion yuan from the contributing provinces has already been invested, the People’s Daily said on Wednesday.

Dongguan alone allocated 995 million yuan for Yingxiu, and pitched in with designs and other contributions. A school and hundreds of houses are completed.

“It was a huge program, a nationalistic exercise, and I thought that the logistics of that kind of pairing were extremely efficient,” said Thomas Hahn, a planning expert at Cornell University who has studied the Sichuan quake aftermath.

By contrast, post-quake reconstruction in other developing countries has often foundered over misspent funds, shortfalls and poor coordination. In Pakistan’s Kashmir, survivors lived in tents and makeshift huts for years after a 2005 quake.

In Yingxiu, outsiders answering to bosses hundreds of miles away have little incentive to consult survivors about what their new hometown will look like.

“I hear that if you don’t have enough money, they will do a basic decoration inside for you, but really I don’t know much about what it will be like,” said 37 year-old Liu Yan, who lost a child when a primary school collapsed. She now runs a small vegetable stall near the ruins of her home.

Town officials worry that Dongguan was thinking too big for an area where the population is expected to drop to around 10,000 after reconstruction is completed, compared with 16,000 before the quake, said a Communist Party vice-secretary surnamed Cai.

“They help us build great schools and hospitals. We appreciate their help,” one official in the town told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

“But we might not be able to afford the operation costs of those schools and hospitals, let alone management problems. It’s out of our league.”

($1=6.826 Yuan)

Additional reporting by Huang Yan; Editing by Lucy Hornby and Chris Buckley

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