On May 12 last year, I had rushed out of my 42-storey residential high-rise in Beijing as it swayed visibly during the worst earthquake to strike China in 32 years.
Little did we know then, while we crowded on the pavement for over an hour and engineers checked the tower’s structural safety, that the 8.0 magnitude earthquake would leave nearly 87,000 dead or missing and almost five million homeless across China’s mountainous southwest known for its giant pandas and fiery cuisine.
Beijing’s Olympics stadiums and modern glass-and-steel residential towers are reportedly designed to withstand an 8.0 magnitude earthquake. But far from China’s showpiece capital that day, thousands of students were trapped under Sichuan schools that crumbled so fast that angry parents called them ‘tofu’ schools.
Last week, days before the sensitive May 12 anniversary, China released an official toll of dead and missing schoolchildren: 5,335. Independent estimates are higher. “These numbers far from reflect reality,’’ Beijing’s influential artist Ai Weiwei who is researching the student toll, told Reuters.
Authorities have promised that new schools built will be quakeproof, but they are mostly silent about investigations into shoddy construction and media reports of parents being harassed or detained for demanding investigations. The Foreign Correspondents Club of China recently advised ‘extra caution’ while visiting Sichuan, after three reports of interference in reporting from people in plainclothes.
While the parents of Sichuan are still grieving, officials have elaborated plans for quake tourism and quake museums. The China Daily recently said that ‘quake ruins tourism’ fetched Sichuan 1.87 billion yuan ($274 million) during the Spring Festival in January.
Quake tourism could bring a source of income for the masses left unemployed post-May 12. But for thousands of parents whose voice was stifled, it will be painful to see tourists walk over the ground that buried their children and questions that remain unanswered a year after.
The debris of a chopper that crashed during rescue attempts, a pig that survived 36 days under debris and the bike on which a man strapped his wife’s body are displayed at the Wenchuan Earthquake Museum.