AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. Five years ago, a massive earthquake killed almost 90,000 people in China's Sichuan province. My co-host Melissa Block was there, recording the moment it hit.
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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
What's going on? The whole building is shaking. The whole building is shaking. My goodness. Oh, my goodness, we're in the middle of an earthquake?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Earthquake, yeah.
BLOCK: The whole block is shaking.
CORNISH: Five years later, with the province recovering from a recent, much smaller earthquake, NPR's Louisa Lim has returned to Sichuan. And she's found allegations that the quake reconstruction effort has been plagued by corruption and wrongdoing.
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LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: Air-raid sirens howl to remember around 200 people who lost their lives in the most recent earthquake in Lushan. It takes me back five years to the first time I heard this noise, following the massive quake that killed almost 90,000 people. Then, the country united to try to help the survivors. But five years on, the mood here has changed to one of bitter resentment and anger.
So I've now come to a brand-new town, which was specially built to house the survivors of the earthquake who'd lived in Beichuan, a town that had been totally destroyed. And I have to say, from the outside, this new town looks amazing. There's row after row of six-story blocks, brand-new. And I'm standing opposite a huge sports center with a big swimming pool outside. But I have to say, underneath this impressive facade, the problems still exist.
MRS. ZHOU: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: One resident, who gives her name as Mrs. Zhou, is pointing at the cracks in the wall of her apartment. She's lived here just over two years. Fissures run up and down, and across the walls, of almost every room. Many of these residents believe their apartments are shoddily built - tofu-dregs construction, as it's called here, since the buildings are as unstable as tofu. That was the reason why so many buildings collapsed five years ago. Now, people fear the post-quake buildings were also built too hastily and with substandard materials.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: Some local officials took the chance to feather their own nests, other residents say. So far, at least 11 people have been sentenced for corruption in post-quake building work. Another party official is due to stand trial, reportedly for pocketing bribes of $1.7 million. These residents don't know who's to blame. They are just worried their new homes could be structurally unsound.
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LIM: So even the foundations of this six-story building don't look at all stable. At certain points, the building is kind of shearing away from the pavement. And there's this big crack running along the bottom of the building. And at some points, it's as long as one of my fingers.
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LIM: The bigger irony is that Mrs. Zhou wasn't even re-housed as a quake survivor. She and her friends are part of a group of 11,000 villagers whose land was taken by the government for the new town. Most of it still lies untouched. They say it's been put up for sale at a hundred times the price they were compensated for it. A farmer who represents the villagers, Li Yiqian, has been put in prison for three years, found guilty of organizing residents to create a disturbance. His son, Li Yang, says the charges are ridiculous.
LI YANG: (Through translator) They wanted to get the land so they could sell it when the price appreciated. This is robbery. It's completely naked exploitation. You want to take over my land, you should negotiate with me. But without any negotiation, they stopped our water supply and electricity. This is the way bandits behave.
LIM: The new Beichuan, 15 miles from the devastated town, is the highest-profile post-quake project, costing $1.4 billion U.S. Forty thousand residents live here now. The town center consists of large, brick buildings, mostly housing tourist shops selling cheap and nasty souvenirs. There's one, big problem. There are few tourists. Having lost their land, residents struggle to get by.
Vendor Zhang Ming lost five family members, including her daughter, in the quake. But she says she's so busy just trying to survive, she hardly has time to think of the past.
ZHANG MING: (Through translator) Business is no good here, especially this year. In this street, almost 70 percent of people are losing money. This year is worse than last year. No one comes here anymore.
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LIM: In the carpark, a propaganda film boasts about the reconstruction effort. There's another untold story here, too; a story of unpaid salaries and exploited workers. Chen Wenfeng is in charge of a team of builders. Twice, they went to take part in post-quake reconstruction; once after the Sichuan quake, and then later building an orphanage in Yushu, a Tibetan region of China. Both times, he and his team weren't properly paid for their work. And the money he spent upfront on equipment was never repaid. In total, he's owed more than $170,000.
CHEN WENFENG: (Through translator) We won't go if we're asked to take part in reconstruction work again because every time we've gone, we haven't been paid the wages we're owed and the money we spent on gear.
LIM: When he pursued his claim for building the orphanage, he was told the work had been subcontracted three times, which is against the law. He could never figure out whether any of the bigger contractors had been paid. And because he had no written contract - again, in violation of the law - it's hard for him to make his case.
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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: Appeals for donations to help victims of the latest quake dominate the airwaves. But giving is down. The widespread perception of corruption is borne out by these accounts. So much of the reconstruction effort was flawed - from the building materials used to the payment of workers, to government oversight, to the requisitioning of land. Maybe these people have just been unlucky. But their complaints happened in different places at different times, indicating that problems are widespread.
That's certainly what Huang Qi believes. He's an activist who runs a human rights website. Since NPR last met him, Huang has spent three years in prison for possessing state secrets. He believes that he and other activists were sent to prison to shut them up.
HUANG QI: (Through translator) After they had got rid of these voices of supervision, there emerged a series of new tofu-dregs buildings and new corruption. They used the excuse of the big earthquake to bring new harm to the people. That is a fact.
LIM: When this most recent quake hit, he immediately set off towards the epicenter. He was detained, then turned back by police. He suspects there were things they just didn't want him to see. Criticism is clearly being stifled by force. And local officials are not just profiting from human misery; they're adding to it, too.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.
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CORNISH: This is NPR News.