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China Expert Orville Schell: Fast Growth a Factor

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China Expert: Rapid Growth a Factor in Quake's Toll

China Expert Orville Schell: Fast Growth a Factor

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Rain has been falling in some of China's most devastated areas and it's expected to continue in coming days, and that's making it that much harder to help those hurt, helpless and still lost in Monday's massive earthquake. The rains have also added to the disaster, creating landslides, which in turn have blocked some roads and kept others from being repaired.

Kate Janice is an aid worker in Chengdu, China.

Ms. KATE JANICE (Aid Worker): Transportation routes are not being able to be rebuilt as quickly as everyone thought was possible. There's still many communities that haven't received any aid.

MONTAGNE: An aid worker in Chengdu. For a broader look at Sichuan Province, we reached Orville Schell. He's director of the Asia Society Center on U.S.-China Relations and has written extensively about China. Welcome.

Mr. ORVILLE SCHELL (Asia Society Center on U.S.-China Relations): Good to be with you.

MONTAGNE: Would you describe for our listeners what Sichuan Province looks like?

Mr. SCHELL: Well, Sichuan Province is an inland province and it's very densely populated. But it also is sort of pressed up against the foothills of the Himalayas. So it has a very wide variety of climates and sort of habitats ranging from sort of rice farming in the southern part, eastern part, and then you get up into these beautiful sort of rhododendron forests and higher altitudes where you get up into snow-capped mountains of the Himalayas. So it runs the whole gamut.

MONTAGNE: Now, we've been hearing a lot of reporting from our correspondents in one of the more populous cities there, Chengdu. And it's not just populous, it's a huge city.

Mr. SCHELL: Well, it's interesting. Two cities in Sichuan Province, where the earthquake took place, are vast. Chengdu is the sort of westernmost city, and then Chongqing is at the top of the Yangtze River, lake that form behind the Three Gorges Dam. This province has more people than most countries.

MONTAGNE: And yet these names will be new to many in the West.

Mr. SCHELL: Yes. Well, you have to remember that China has over 160 cities with more than a million people in them.

MONTAGNE: The worst-hit area, or at least what is being considered at this moment in time the worst-hit area, is a county, Beichuan. The Chinese media are reporting that 80 percent of the buildings there have fallen down. How do they compare to, say, things that are built in Beijing or Shanghai?

Mr. SCHELL: Well, since the Tangshan earthquake in the late '70s, which was the last huge earthquake, China's really sought to mandate and enforce much stricter building code requirements. The problem has been, there's been such a rapid amount of development, and you have to recognize that China's had an 11 percent growth rate in this last year. So much construction has gone up that's substandard, and a lot of it happened so rapidly it's very difficult for building inspectors to enforce, particularly outside the large cities.

And what we don't know yet, because in many cases these areas are still cut off, of how these smaller county cities did where the building codes are much less rigorous and where an awful lot of sort of bootleg construction has gone in, and many of these things just collapsed.

MONTAGNE: You just mentioned the earthquake of 1976, which killed something like 250,000 people, a number that's hard to grasp. That earthquake barely made the news.

Mr. SCHELL: Well, in 1976, China was pretty closed off from the world. And at that time China sought to actually conceal what had happened from the outside world. And there were no outside aid organizations, for instance, let in. And it truly was a catastrophe of monumental proportions. China's changed a great deal now, and they're reporting this one quite openly, and I think they will probably even welcome the foreign aid if it would actually help.

But China's pretty good at dealing with these natural disasters now. So I'm not sure it will need foreign aid, but I wouldn't be surprised if by the time they got to some of these outlying regions closer to the epicenter of the quake if there were 50,000 people ended up being dead. We'll just have to see.

MONTAGNE: Thank you for talking with us.

Mr. SCHELL: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Orville Schell is director of the Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations.

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