Monthly Archives: May 2008

Shoddily-Built School Collapses Test Beijing’s Openness

An FT report that some parents of children killed in a school collapse in the Sichuan earthquake are considering legal action against local officials they believe responsible for sub-standard construction highlights the growing point of protest in what has otherwise being a “good” disaster response for the authorities.

The school in question, a middle school in Juyuan, is not the only one in Sichuan to have been shaken to the ground. Nigh on 5,000 schoolchildren perished in the quake, creating a potentially powerful lobby of angry parents.

Investigations into shoddy construction standards are already underway across the province. The education ministry has promised “severe” punishment for any offenders found; the chief justice of the Supreme court has called for lower courts to crack down on any earthquake related corruption. No doubt guilty parties will be found, if more among local than central government officials.

State media has given unprecedented, if carefully managed, coverage to the disaster. The images have been of heroic effort and extensive mourning, but they can’t completely mask the fact that schools and houses have collapsed where party and government buildings still stand. Yet questions of responsibility are absent. Even on the internet, vociferous in its criticism of foreign governments over Tibet, only the faintest of concerns about construction standards are being voiced, or at least in the posting let stand.

The school building affair will prove an interesting test of how much openness is really being permitted, and, for Beijing, a measure of how much it dare safely allow.

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Dior Drops Sharon Stone From Its China Ads

What goes around, kamas around. (Sorry. Too irresitable.)

American actress and Christian Dior spokesperson Sharon Stone has been dropped from its ads in China by the French fashion house Christian Dior for her comments at the Cannes Film Festival last week about the Sichuan earthquake being the consequence of the bad karma of Beijing’s treatment of Tibetans.

The remarks caused a furore on and offline, and have become a YouTube favorite. Stone, 50, has since apologized (“noted”, said official China, tersely), but the 50-year-old actress is out of Dior’s ads in China promoting an anti-ageing skin-care line among other products.

For all the hue and cry, this Bystander doubts if any of this will prove to be of great consequence. Dior’s chairman highlighted the contribution of the success of the Sharon Stone-promoted Capture Totale to the strong growth of the company’s beauty care division in his last report to shareholders, but the actress is, so far at least, only being dropped from its ads in China.

For her part, Stone’s career lives off her reputation from Basic Instinct, a film released in 1992. Those in Hollywood who share her views on Tibet won’t have their minds changed. Celebrity protests, like Steven Spielberg’s withdrawal from helping arrange the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, have been sidelined by the tragedy of the Sichuan earthquake.

And the chance of most Hollywood stars engaging their brain before opening their mouths remains as remote as ever.

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New Earthquake Situation Map

ReliefWeb has posted an updated situation map (pdf), a snapshot of which is below. This one concentrates on the barrier lakes, which threaten a “slurry tsunami” if they burst, and on dams at risk:

An estimated 700,000 people are threatened by the possible bursting of earthquake/landslide-caused lakes, according to the authorities. Mass evacuations continue from low-lying at-risk areas; meanwhile the lakes are being dredged and sluiced as best they can. Beijing says that priority attention remains focused on the one in Tangjiashan, Beichuan County, that is blocking the Jianhe River. With more than 128 million cubic meters of water behind it, poses the greatest risk to life.

The authorities also say that the quake and its aftershocks have damaged 2,380 dams across the region, 1,803 dams in Sichuan. Sixty-nine are at risk of bursting, including the Zipingpu Dam, upriver from Dujiangyan.

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Beijing Asks Tokyo To Send Military Planes To Sichuan

Another piece of earthquake diplomacy: Kyodo news agency says Beijing has sounded out Tokyo on sending Japanese military planes to help with relief efforts in the stricken zone. The Self-Defense Forces’ aircraft would be used to airlift tents and other supplies. It would be the first time Japan’s military would have been in China since World War II. The request follows President Hu Jintao’s fence-mending visit to Japan earlier this month, the first state visit by a Chinese leader in a decade. Japan has already sent medical and earthquake rescue specialists to Sichuan.

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Barrier Lakes Are New Quake Concern

Barrier lakes — those formed by earthquake induced landslides — are the new concern. The Sichuan quake on May 12 created 35 of them, 34 in Sichuan, according to E Jingping, vice-minister for water resources. The situation is still grim, Xinhua reports him as saying, with heavy rains forecast for early this week. Evacuation plans have been drawn up for the 19 at greatest risk of bursting.

I posted a snapshot of some satellite photos of how these lakes form a couple of days back.

The biggest concern now is Tangjiashan, the largest barrier lake, just 3 kms upstream on the Jianhe River from a what’s left of a town in Beichuan. The lake is now 723 metres deep and now less than 30 meters below the lowest part of the barrier, threatening to inundate as many as 1.3 million people downstream with the 130 million cubic metres of water it is estimated to contain.

A Russian helicopter successfully delivered a large bulldozer and other eight sets of big earthmoving machines to near the swelling lake, the China Daily reports, something that seems to have defeated the PLA. The plan is to dig a diverting channel. Eighteen hundred PLA troops and armed police have made it on foot to help sluice the lake by blasting holes in it before it bursts or floods. Continuing aftershocks are complicating the work. The new shaking can further destabilize already unstable barriers.

Thirty thousand people have already been moved to higher ground and another 80,000 are likely to have to be evacuated.

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China Orders Tent Makers To Deliver Tents To Quake Zone

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao says domestic tent manufacturers have been ordered to produce and transport 30,000 tents a day to the area devastated by the Sichuan quake, and 900,000 within a month. Providing shelter for the estimated 5 million left homeless by the disaster is a top priority as the focus of official relief switches from search and rescue to resettlement and reconstruction. And tents are in short supply. But being able to order up their production is an example of where top-down command and control works to China’s advantage.

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Quake Rebuilding Poses Challenge To Beijing’s Political Authority

Interesting read from a trio of Financial Times writers, Mure Dickie, Geoff Dyer and Jamil Anderlini, about the challenges facing Beijing in rebuilding after the quake.

The immediate response from Beijing, harnessing the top-down system quickly to mobilise vast resources, has been widely praised. Yet that same political system is likely to be put to the test by the long-term challenges of reconstruction and the demands for more openness that this will create.

Not only will such a complex task require co-operation with charities and other groups but the outpouring of grief has energised Chinese society in new ways. A flood of donations from Chinese people to non-governmental relief organisations has demonstrated a desire both for greater accountability and for a feeling of closer involvement in the relief work. Rapid social changes have already made it impossible for China’s one-party system to exert the sort of control it once did: the earthquake could accelerate the process.

Quite separately, I cam across these NASA satellite photos of how the quake turned this river:

into this lake:

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