City in Ruins: The Legacy of Sichuan's Big Earthquake

Five years later, China has preserved the semi-destroyed city of Beichuan as a memorial to the victims. But the controversy over collapsed school buildings hasn't gone away.
sichuanearthquake.jpgPeople burn offerings for relatives who died in the 2008 earthquake which killed nearly 70,000 people, in old Beichuan county, May 11, 2013.(Reuters)

On May 12, 2008, an earthquake registering 7.8 on the Richter Scale struck Beichuan County in southwest China's Sichuan Province, soon becoming the country's worst natural disaster in three decades. The quake -- which was felt thousands of miles away in Hong Kong -- caused immense structural damage and officially claimed nearly 70,000 lives (though the real figure is probably much higher).

Five years later, Beichuan still exists -- as a memorial to the dead. Rather than raze the damaged buildings and rebuild the city, the Chinese government relocated survivors to a new city 10 miles away and preserved Beichuan's ruins as a tribute to those affected by the tragedy. For a better look at how the ruined city looks today, please see these fascinating images pulled together by my colleague Alan Taylor.

The speedy government response to the Sichuan quake was initially a public relations triumph for the Communist Party, which for the first time showed an ability to effectively manage disaster relief. Aid workers arrived on the scene just hours after the quake hit, and then-Premier Wen Jiabao, gamely referring to himself as "Grandpa", was photographed reassuring grieving children. In contrast to previous incidents, Beijing welcomed international aid and permitted the media unprecedented access to the earthquake zone. Given the government's checkered past in handling disasters -- consider the SARS crisis, which erupted just five and a half years earlier, for example -- the Sichuan response was extremely successful

However, the Communist Party still hasn't adequately addressed the controversy surrounding Beichuan's collapsed schoolhouses. In the aftermath of the quake, many of Beichuan's grieving parents wondered aloud why their children were crushed under the rubble of poorly built buildings while government structures sustained comparatively little damage. Beijing, so open to media exposure in the immediate aftermath of the quake, suddenly fell silent. The intervening years have yet to yield a satisfactory answer, and those (most famously Ai Weiwei) who have sought answers have encountered firm resistance.

Alas, those hoping for progress on this front are likely to be disappointed: None of the tributes to the dead in Beichuan memorialize the town's children, and the propaganda ministry has given orders to journalists not to report any "negative news." It seems that those looking for a silver lining to Sichuan's tragedy will have to wait longer. 

Matt Schiavenza is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is a former global-affairs writer for the International Business Times and Atlantic senior associate editor.

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