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Huge Recovery Effort Revives China's Quake Zone
Associated Press/AP Online
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By CHRISTOPHER BODEEN
WENCHUAN, China - Couples gather near dusk to practice ballroom dancing by the new cultural center, twirling leisurely in the heart of a city so devastated by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that leaders had planned to simply seal it off and rebuild elsewhere.
Down the road at Wenchuan's new "House of Sunshine" apartment complex, families move into just-completed units, and Qiang ethnic minority women in vibrantly colored aprons line up at a new 200-bed hospital that was built in just 90 days.
As Haiti struggles with the fallout from last month's devastating earthquake, China is showing off the results of its massive drive to rebuild its own quake zone in this seismically active corner of southwest China, where sheer peaks and deep valleys form the foothills of the Tibetan plateau.
Just 22 months after the 7.9-magnitude temblor struck, swaths of exposed rock and dirt that appear to have been clawed out of the mountain sides are the only immediate signs of the devastation that left nearly 90,000 dead or missing and another 5 million homeless.
"We've recovered pretty quick," said Song Jinfeng, a project manager strolling beside Wenchuan's Min river that had been the only route of escape after the quake sent rock slides hurtling down the slopes, blocking all major roads.
"It's housing first, then basic infrastructure, public services and finally jobs," Song said, listing the project's oft repeated priorities.
Key to this success has been the allocation of about $11 billion in government reconstruction funds, an option not available to impoverished Haiti, where January's 7.0-magnitude earthquake killed an estimated 200,000 people and left 3 million in need of food, shelter and medicine.
While per capita annual incomes in the Sichuan quake zones hover at around 3,000 yuan ($440), China's booming economy and surging government revenues mean there is no shortage of funding.
Add to that fiscal muscle China's powerful manufacturing and construction capacity, a surfeit of engineering expertise, and strong transport infrastructure. A further advantage in China's topdown communist system, which is suited to such crisis response, setting clear goals without lengthy discussion, and providing a cadre of party officials accountable to the leadership.
Though corruption in China is rampant - and is thought to have played a role in Sichuan's devastation because many of the quake-zone buildings were poorly built - this reconstruction project has been subject to an unusually high level of scrutiny by the central government. Top leaders have visited on multiple occasions and promised to spare no effort in getting the area back on its feet, essentially staking their legacy to the region's rapid recovery.
To help speed the recovery and provide added oversight, China's central government ordered every province, region and major city in the country to adopt an affected county and provide funds and expertise.
The relatively wealthy eastern province of Shandong has overseen Wenchuan's rebuilding with designs meant to minimize damage from any future quakes. Crowded neighborhoods were bulldozed and new buildings constructed well clear of the steep valley walls.
At the House of Sunshine, the family of middle school teacher Zhang Xia, 40, is settling into a 1,000 square-foot (100 square-meter) apartment. Since the quake they have lived in a prefabricated unit and a tent before that.
"It has been scary at times, but now we finally feel like we're home," Zhang said.
Replacement homes are provided free to the neediest families, while others are granted about 40,000 yuan ($5,900) for a down payment and offered loans of up to 200,000 yuan ($29,400).
Construction costs are higher than for similar projects elsewhere in China, partly because of a dearth of workers and the need to truck in supplies. Also, engineering experts from China's leading universities were recruited to design buildings capable of withstanding quakes of up to magnitude-9.0. The structures have thicker walls, heavier steel beams and extra iron reinforcing.
Poor designs and shoddy construction were blamed for the collapse of so many schools during the quake - almost 7,000 classrooms crumbled and 5,335 students were killed. To assuage public anger, central government and local officials promised not to cut corners in the reconstruction and to enforce higher safety codes.
While officials ultimately decided to salvage Wenchuan, the destroyed county seat of Beichuan and its 240,0000 residents are being moved 20 miles (30 kilometers) out of the mountains to former farming land below.
The move is among the trickiest of the recovery projects, with difficulties including adjusting rural dwellers to urban life and factory work, says project manager Song Wenhua. Land and housing distribution is always a prickly subject in China, and there are no guarantees that all will be satisfied, he said.
Officials also need to ensure that the local economy can produce enough jobs to prevent large-scale outward migration. New Beichuan's leaders have attracted industries from food processing to electronics, but concede that ensuring employment isn't as easy as pouring concrete.
"There are a tremendous number of problems to solve, but we first have to get people into their homes," said Song, referencing a target for all housing to be finished by that quake's two-year anniversary on May 12.
Meanwhile, parents who lost children in the mass collapse of schools are being excepted from strict rules limiting most families to a single child.
Family planning officials in Beichuan's Leigu township say they identified 349 local women who qualify. So far, 61 have given birth and 13 are pregnant, said clinic director Wang Fang.
At her clinic on the fringe of a cluster of prefabricated housing, Lu Caiqiong, 37, bounces six-month-old son Luo Junling on her knee ahead of a checkup.
"There was so much grief, uncertainty, and economic pressure, said Lu, whose 14-year-old daughter died in the rubble of her school.
"We can't think too much about the future, but it is like a new beginning."
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