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IN CHINA'S EARTHQUAKE, SIGNS OF POLITICAL CHANGE
By CRAIG SIMONS

CHENGDU, China 每 The further west we drove, the worse things got.

In Pengzhou, a city of 135,000 people in China's Sichuan province, buildings were cracked but few had fallen. Fourteen miles away, where we rose into steep bamboo-covered mountains, roughly a third of structures had toppled. Another 16 miles and almost everything manmade had collapsed. In towns, dozens of farmers scavenged scrap metal and wood from the debris.

For me, the trip last June was a homecoming of sorts. Shortly after graduating from Penn in 1996, I had moved to Pengzhou to teach English as a Peace Corps volunteer. Over two years, friends and I had made frequent trips to a Buddhist peak west of the city.

A few years after finishing my Peace Corps posting, I moved to Beijing as a journalist 每 first working freelance and later reporting for Cox Newspapers, a chain that owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other papers 每 and after the May 12 earthquake last year, I wanted to see how it had changed the places I knew and gauge the long-term impacts it might have on the nation.

I also wanted to see places I knew well rebuilding and soften memories from the earthquake's aftermath. When I had visited Sichuan in the days following the 7.9-magnitude quake, I was confronted with death and grieving on a scale I had never seen.

On my first afternoon back, I had traveled to a middle school that had collapsed, killing hundreds of students, and had watched grief-stricken parents identify their children. Later I learned that one of the students I had taught as a Peace Corps volunteer worked at the school and 87 of his students had been killed.

That proximity intensified the tragedy and terrible images from the town haunted me. I wanted to replace them with more hopeful scenes. And so a Chinese friend and I drove toward the earthquake's epicenter, 37 miles west of Pengzhou. As we wound into the mountains, the temblor*s power became obvious: Homes and factories lay in ruins between picture-perfect terraced rice fields.

The earthquake killed almost 70,000 people and the only obvious industry in one town was a flourishing trade in tombs: A dozen men sat at the edge of the road carving Chinese characters onto gravestones. "We are all family to those who have lost relatives," a giant red-and-white banner proclaimed.

In many respects, China's response to the earthquake demonstrated national strength. The government was quick and efficient in providing aid: The military dispatched 130,000 soldiers to the area within three days and hundreds of thousands of average Chinese gathered to help. Tens of millions more people offered donations.

As we drove, we saw the results of those efforts. Roads had been cleared of tons of debris, bridges had been built, epidemics had been prevented and millions of homeless had been given tents, food and water.

Guo Yu, right, and Yan Zhengxun watch television in a makeshift shelter in Taizi village, in China*s Sichuan province. An earthquake on May 12 destroyed their family*s home. Penn alum Craig Simons, now a Beijing-based journalist, returned to the area where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer. Photo by C. Simons.

In town after town, soldiers were building shelters that will house communities over coming years. Temporary schools had opened and volunteers were teaching job skills to farmers who might be forced to leave damaged land.

Everyone I talked with was thankful for the government's work 每 responses that contrasted sharply with criticism of Washington*s efforts after Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast in 2005.

Huo Shanmin, a 32-year-old farmer in a village where almost every house had collapsed, echoed dozens of people I talked with: "The army has saved many lives," he said. "If they hadn't been so fast, many more people would have died."

But if China's top-down governance worked well in the earthquake's aftermath, it also became obvious that the system had failed in average times. Without civil society 每 the checks and balances on power provided by democracy, a free press, the rule of law and strong non-government organizations 每 safety standards have often been ignored.

Despite national laws calling for high-quality construction, thousands of school buildings collapsed in the earthquake, killing an estimated 10,000 students.

In several communities, parents had protested poorly built structures. One school that collapsed was built without any steel rods to hold its concrete together, the Southern Weekend newspaper reported.

I knew from my Peace Corps years that most Chinese complaints are local 每 not big-picture issues like human rights but backyard concerns like how land is used and waste handled 每 and as I stopped in each community, it became obvious that the earthquake had exposed deep rifts of pent-up anger.

In Jiufeng town, a community of 3,000, villagers said officials had tried for over a year to force them off their land to sell it to developers. More than 12 villagers said the local government was using the earthquake as a pretext to force them to move to a lower, less valuable, district.

"Officials want the land so they can make personal profits," said Wang Jiecheng, a 41-year-old villager. "It's corruption."

A few miles east, I ate dinner with a couple living in a tent built from plastic tarps and scavenged wood. Inside, they had stacked everything they could save 每 a television, a washing machine and a few pieces of furniture.

To make room for temporary housing, soldiers had cleared their fields of medicinal plants and no one had told them when, of if, they would be compensated. Without the fields 每 and out several thousand dollars they had invested in seeds, fertilizers and pesticides 每 they didn't know how they would make ends meet.

"We need to be paid for our lost land, but I'm afraid that the government won't give us anything," the wife, surnamed Huo, said.

Like many Chinese I met throughout the trip, she said Beijing must become more accountable to individual needs. In Xiaoyudong, a town where more than 100 people died in the earthquake, a recent university graduate named Li Zhao said the disaster had shown that Beijing needs to empower citizens to supervise their local leaders. "If there was greater democracy and more media freedom, we could ensure that buildings met standards," he said.

He argued that the high number of poorly built schools would convince Beijing*s leaders that they cannot enforce national regulations in remote areas and would cede some control to average people.

It's hard to know if he was right. In some ways, the earthquake proved a watershed event. For several days, Chinese journalists were able to report more freely than they have for many years. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao held a press conference and took unvetted questions, a rarity. But since that period of relative openness, Beijing seems to have clamped down on criticisms.

As I drove out through the ravaged landscape, I thought about my meeting with Huo and her husband. They had tempered gratitude for central government aid with concern about the future. Beijing had provided for their immediate needs and they hoped to find better jobs in coming months. But Huo also worried that they would not be compensated for their land.

"We're thankful for what the government has done," she said. "The question is what they will do in the coming months."

-- Craig Simons graduated with a degree in English in 1996. He and his wife have lived in China for nearly a decade.

A cross marks a fresh grave in Jiufeng village, in China*s Sichuan province, following an earthquake on May 12 that killed almost 70,000 people. Photo by C. Simons.
June 2009