In the Ruins

By James Bennet

It is an eerie, even ghoulish, sight: a sleek black signpost bristling with brushed-steel arrows that point helpfully in Chinese and English down tidy pathways toward devastation—the crumpled remains of a train station, the concrete shards of two government buildings, where, another sign explains in the English translation, “17 cadres were claimed death” and “the whole government courtyard became ruins, left only a sad memory.”

This sad memory, of what was once Hanwang Township, is being preserved by China as one of four “relics parks,” monuments of the wreckage left by the Sichuan earthquake, which struck in the middle of the afternoon on May 12, 2008. It is hard to wrap one’s mind around the toll: more than 68,000 people died, according to the Chinese government, and another 375,000 were injured. More than 5 million homes were destroyed. In Hanwang, whole blocks of apartment buildings were pancaked, reduced to fields of rubble.

The relics park was not supposed to open until the fall, but a few tourists were already wandering among the silent ruins when I visited in late July, as a guest of the China–United States Exchange Foundation, a Hong Kong–based group. Near one building whose façade had been partly ripped away, leaving apartment walls gaping as though they had been shelled, I caught up with Hu Dongzhi, a retired agricultural researcher from Wuhan who was touring Sichuan with his family.

“I heard a lot about the destruction, and I came to see for myself,” he said. He told me he planned to tell his adult son, who works in construction, to pay more attention to structure; he was astonished to see how much of Hanwang appeared to have been built only of brick, with no steel reinforcement.

Chen Liang, the deputy mayor of Hanwang, said that the ruins were being preserved partly to teach that lesson. He was cagey about whether the park would eventually charge an entrance fee, but insisted: “This is a memorial museum. It’s not for profit-making. We want to offer it as a public service.”

In fact, a more astonishing monument, and public service, is visible a mile or so away. There, in what three years ago were rice fields, the government has built a brand new Hanwang. Along four-lane streets divided by planters overflowing with marigolds, new three- and four-story apartment houses provide homes for tens of thousands of people. The new middle school is set amid soccer fields and basketball courts; the new elementary school is strung with a banner that poignantly evokes the terror of a town whose children had to be dug from the rubble of their classrooms: Pay attention to safety at every time and every day, for every event. Thousands of saplings have been planted around the new buildings. When I visited, the crepe myrtles were blooming pink.

China, according to government figures, repaired 3.55 million houses within a year of the earthquake, and entirely rebuilt 1.5 million houses within 18 months. Of the 8,500 schools affected by the quake, China rebuilt more than 3,000; those students who had to move into temporary classrooms were back in permanent ones by the spring semester of 2010.

From a glimpse, it was impossible to know how many residents of the new, rather sterile Hanwang missed their old, narrow, bustling streets. (Deputy Mayor Chen was not sentimental. “The old town was very poorly planned,” he told me.) Likewise, it is impossible to know how many wasteful, superfluous ports and industrial parks, how many bridges to nowhere, China is building as part of its current investment-led economic boom. Yet surveying the streets of new Hanwang, I found it equally hard not to shudder at the news from home, where our leaders were bickering that July day over the conditions under which we would borrow more money, largely to finance transfer payments among our generations, and wars, and interest on our ever-rising debt. “This is no way to run the greatest country on Earth,” Barack Obama would tell the nation later that day.

Just west of Hanwang is the ancient town of Dujiangyan. There, more than 2,000 years ago, the governor, Li Bing, embarked on a colossal and rather hubristic project to control nature. Over many years, he created a system of levees and gouged a 66-foot-wide channel through a mountain to tame and redirect the Min River, eliminating the annual scourge of spring flooding and irrigating the plains around what is still the provincial capital, Chengdu. He turned Sichuan into China’s most productive agricultural region. The system weathered the earthquake; to this day, it works as Li Bing intended.

Speaking of infrastructure: This month, The Atlantic will launch a new sister Web site, Atlantic Cities ( www.TheAtlanticCities.com). Under the guidance of Richard Florida, whose article on how social skills drive urban growth can be found on page 75, the site will track new ideas and debates about city life worldwide. Also this month on TheAtlantic.com, we will feature “The Green Report,” a series of articles examining how businesses, governments, and consumers are reckoning with environmental realities.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/10/in-the-ruins/308624/