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article imageChina marks 10th anniversary of devastating earthquake

By AFP     May 12, 2018 in World

China marked the 10th anniversary Saturday of a massive earthquake that killed tens of thousands in southwest Sichuan province and left scars on the nation that have yet to fully heal.

More than 87,000, including 5,335 school pupils, were left dead or missing when a 7.9-magnitude quake struck Sichuan on the afternoon of May 12, 2008 -- a tragedy that triggered both raw anguish and national pride over the response.

A remembrance was due to take place Saturday afternoon at a collapsed school in the town of Yingxiu, one of the worst-hit areas.

But there was no live broadcast. Instead, state broadcaster CCTV chose to focus on live images showing newly reconstructed schools and apartment blocks while largely eliding any reference to the injured or dead, some of whom still lay beneath the new buildings.

Houses destroyed by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in Beichuan have been kept frozen in time since
Houses destroyed by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in Beichuan have been kept frozen in time since
Johannes EISELE, AFP

The quake hit at 2:28 pm. But as the clock ticked past three Saturday, the country's leaders gave no major speeches, no grand ceremonies honouring the dead were held and there was no national moment of silence.

President Xi Jinping sent a letter to a conference on earthquakes convened in honour of the disaster, the official Xinhua news service reported.

In the text, he pledged the country would "enhance its disaster prevention capabilities" and improve scientific understanding of such events. The article did not mention condolences.

Outrage erupted after it emerged 7,000 schools were badly damaged by the quake, triggering accusations of shoddy construction, corner-cutting and possible corruption, especially as many other buildings nearby held firm.

They became known as "tofu schools" in China, likening their structural instability to the soft bean curd dish.

A decade on, the government has still never released an official investigation into the accusations.

Even now campaigners and parents are seeking answers on how the quake destroyed so many schools when it struck during afternoon classes.

The government has responded by silencing them: detaining, arresting and harassing those who spoke out until only a few dare to continue.

- Scars run deep -

The disaster inspired a generation of journalists and activists, catapulting artist Ai Weiwei -- who organised a probe into the school collapses -- to a new level of international fame.

Huge donations to relief funds at the time popularised the idea of private giving, inspiring the creation of a host of new charitable organisations.

And as the country united in the face of the tragedy, it -- along with the 2008 Summer Olympics -- helped to crystallise a new sense of national identity.

More than 87 000 were left dead or missing when a 7.9-magnitude quake struck Sichuan in May 2008 -- ...
More than 87,000 were left dead or missing when a 7.9-magnitude quake struck Sichuan in May 2008 -- and scars of the disaster, physical and mental, remain
Johannes EISELE, AFP

But authorities quickly moved to tamp down the new spirit of openness, arresting critics and journalists alike.

Ai Weiwei was beaten by police and held in detention for months. He has since left the country.

And a plethora of scandals tainted the new enthusiasm for giving, with the Red Cross in particular caught up in a huge row over misdirected funds.

Today, the cities and villages that were destroyed have mostly been reconstructed, after the government poured billions into the recovery effort.

New roads, power lines, and communications link the once-remote areas to the provincial capital Chengdu.

The standard of living has improved substantially for many survivors, who have benefited from tourists flooding into the region to see the ruins.

Even so, for many, the scars run deep.

The earthquake "has shown how hard it can be for people to get over the psychological aftershocks" of a disaster, the state-owned China Daily wrote in an editorial.

"Less than 10 percent of those who suffered psychological problems... have sought counselling," it said.

A Chinese rescuer in May 2008 checks a collapsed building for earthquake survivors in Wenchuan  in s...
A Chinese rescuer in May 2008 checks a collapsed building for earthquake survivors in Wenchuan, in southwest China's Sichuan province
-, AFP/File

But while grieving families suppress their trauma, China's ruling Communist party has used the earthquake as a propaganda opportunity.

Editorials on the disaster filled state media Saturday, with commentators opining on how the region's rehabilitation showed the strength of China and the party.

A story on Xinhua explained how Xi's leadership helped the province rebuild itself after the disaster -- despite the fact he took office more than four years after it occurred.

Earlier this year, when Xi visited the ruins of Yichuan, he called for them to be used as an "important patriotic education base".

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