Sichuan 3 years later: The promise of a new future

By Corey Cooper
0 CommentsPrint E-mail, May 25, 2011
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Editor's Note: On May 16-19, a group of journalists from and other publications travelled to towns and villages in Beichuan and Wenchuan counties as well as other municipalities hit hardest by the May 12, 2008 Sichuan earthquake, to examine reconstruction efforts and gain a better perspective of life in the quake zone three years later.


The following article is part one in a three-part series.

Visitors tour the 5.12.08 Earthquake Memorial and Museum, containing the remains of the old city of Beichuan, in Sichuan's Beichuan County. The city suffered one of the highest casualty rates of the disaster; nearly half of it's former population of 20,000 perished. [Photo: Corey Cooper / ]

Mixed feelings of grief as well as hopefulness ran through my mind as I took part in a 4-day tour of the most devastated areas hit in the May, 12, 2008 Great Earthquake.

The first stop on our tour was the original county seat of Beichuan County. When the 8.0 magnitude quake hit southwest China on May 12, 2008, Beichuan County was among the hardest hit. Twenty thousand people died in that county alone. In the county seat of Beichuan, it's believed half the population of 20,000 perished.

Beichuan is in a deep valley, with mountains on all sides. The force of the earthquake sheared off the sides of those mountains, and the landslides roared straight down onto the city.

We toured the ruins of former mainstays of that town, including the former four-star Beichuan Hotel. As it was one of the few buildings in the town that hadn't completely collapsed, thousands of displaced residents used it as a shelter.

Another tragic site was the former transportation hub of Beichuan. Here, four victims passed away as the first floor residential building caved. The former Agricultural Development Bank, now only a gutted shell of a building, was where local Party members held an emergency meeting to organize relief efforts.

The former earthquake zone has been completely transformed into a museum as well as a memorial for the 5.12 victims. However, according local administrator Zhao Kaisheng, few of the original residents come to visit the museum, since there are still too stricken with grief to come here.

"They've only come for the anniversary ceremony to remember the dead," Zhao said.

Our tour guide reminded us that often the specific geographic location of a building can have as much to do with its chances of surviving an earthquake as can its structural integrity. In one example, we viewed two identical residential buildings just across the street from each other. One had collapsed and was completely reduced to rubble, while the other one stood perfectly adjacent to the street, with only minor damage.

This premise was one of the factors that went into deciding the spot to rebuild the New Beichuan. The new spot chosen is in a much more geographically-favorable location, devoid of the rockslide-causing mountains that had plagued the original town. This laid the basis for planners to vastly improve the new town's earthquake-resistance capability. According to our tour guide, buildings in New Beichuan are built to fully withstand an equivalent 8.0 quake.

Before we headed into New Beichuan, we paid tribute to the completely demolished Beichuan Middle School. The school was nestled into Jingjia Mountain. I imagined the serene campus bustling with playing children and teachers before the disaster struck. During the quake, the school was completely overwhelmed by massive falling boulders as Jingjia Mountain collapsed. The school suffered many casualties, and even some of those that survived were trapped underneath debris for days. Now, all that stands among the pile of rubble are a lone Chinese flag, along with a banner than reads "Children, please come home soon. Your parents miss you and will not forget you."

After touring the solemn disaster site, we visited two sites that represented the cultural, economic, and social reconstruction of Beichuan County, arguably the hardest hit area of the earthquake. We had lunch in a new Qiang Minority Tourism Development Zone, just about 15-20 minutes away from the earthquake memorial area. With the help of reconstruction partners in Shandong Province, the County erected a recreation area that represents the spirit of the Qiang People. It features a large tower and adjacent buildings with rectangular roofs, characteristic of ancient Qiang architecture. Former Beichuan residents were working in the museum and restaurant as well as selling souvenirs to tourists outside. A hotel also had recently opened nearby. According to a local official, the new development area earns enough to completely support about 70 local families.

Finally we made it to the New Beichuan area. First, our group viewed an exhibition explaining the staggering loss of life and property that befell the area during the 5.12.08 earthquake. Following Chinese President Hu Jintao's creed of "We must rebuild a new and better Beichuan," Shandong Province played a major role in assisting the county with its reconstruction efforts. The Province provided 10 billion yuan in funding and organized 30,000 builders from 17 cities to focus on 413 individual reconstruction projects within the county.

In just two years' time, New Beichuan has been completely transformed. Now on flatter, safer ground, the city boasts wide, newly paved roads and four distinct districts, which include housing for families and the elderly, a new hospital, a commercial and cultural area and, most impressively, a massive new education complex including primary, middle and high school which will have the capacity for over 5,000 students.

As we toured the new Beichuan school campus, it was evident how much thought and planning had been put into the construction, from the thoughtful landscaping surrounding the property to the interior design, from large classrooms providing ample room for students, to energy-conserving natural lighting prevalent throughout the halls of each building.

Our last stop in Beichuan was the new town's commercial center, where you could see new signs of retail development starting to creep in. A restaurant owner told me the retail street had only begun operations a month ago, so there hasn't been much time for development, and so far, not much business. However, as the town's population starts to fill in even more, I expect that the ample commercial zone, with its wide central pedestrian walk, will begin to blossom.

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