Ruined Beichuan Starts Anew When the 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit southwest China in May 2008, Beichuan county was among the hardest hit. Now, Beichuan is abandoned, but it's becoming a tourist attraction. Vendors like Mu Zhenxian, who lost 16 family members, sell photos of the burial ground.
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Ruined Beichuan Starts Anew

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Ruined Beichuan Starts Anew

Ruined Beichuan Starts Anew

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From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel. On May 12th of last year, listeners to this program heard the power of an earthquake as it struck Southwest China.

(Soundbite of earthquake)

MELISSA BLOCK: What's going on? The whole building is shaking, the whole building is shaking, oh my goodness.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of earthquake)

BLOCK: Oh my goodness. We're in the middle of an earthquake? (Unintelligible) taking. The top of the church is falling down. The ground is shaking underneath. I've seen it all. The people are running out in the street.

SIEGEL: That was our co-host Melissa Block. She and I were in Sichuan province at the time and we began that day to report on the immense destruction that 7.9 magnitude earthquake caused: ninety thousand people dead or missing, more then five million left homeless. Melissa is now back in Sichuan and all this week she'll be reporting on what has happened in the year since. How Sichuan is rebuilding? How families are piecing themselves back together and what's happening to those who have protested against shoddy construction and demanded official accountability. Melissa joins me from the capital of Sichuan, Chengdu. Hi.

BLOCK: Hey Robert.

SIEGEL: And my memories of rural Sichuan from a year ago Melissa were of towns with buildings flattened, boulders that had rolled down mountain tops and crushed structures and cars, roof tiles that had all been shaken loose and rendered homes un-inhabitable - a year later?

BLOCK: Well, you know, you do see some of that same evidence of destruction when you drive around. You still see plenty of shattered homes but it does look different and it sounds different. This I think is the sound like the drumbeat that we described…

(Soundbite of drumbeat)

BLOCK: …what's going in Beichuan right now?

(Soundbite of construction)

SIEGEL: It sounds like one massive construction zone.

BLOCK: Yeah. They are building everywhere around Sichuan at a stunning pace, you see houses springing up all around, some already done, some really just getting started but they're everywhere you turn. Alongside the new though you see plenty of people living in shacks or prefab barracks and again just evidence everywhere of the immense power of what happened here a year ago: brutally crushed houses, landslides that sheared away the whole sides of mountains and when you see it I just - it still takes my breath away when I see it.

SIEGEL: And today Melissa I understand you have a report from one of the most devastated cities in Sichuan - the city of Beichuan, up in the mountains. A city so completely destroyed that it will not be rebuilt where it was but it's actually going to be moved.

BLOCK: It's going to be moved entirely and the death toll from that city really boggles the mind. About half the people from the county seat are believed to have died in the earthquake, that means maybe 10,000 people dead in Beichuan city alone and maybe 20,000 dead in the county. Beichuan, which sits in a mountain valley had a one two punch. I mean first the buildings were torn to shreds by the violent shaking of the earthquake and then these massive landslides tore down from the mountains all around.

And thousands of bodies are still entombed in that city. They were never recovered. So they have closed the city off. You can't go into it anymore. It's surrounded by fence and concertina wire. But you can go up on the mountain above and look out over the city. And it is a surreal scene Robert because down below in the valley you see a city that's in complete ruin, it's a wasteland. Up above the city, that lookout point that I was talking about, has become a tourist attraction.

And Robert where there are tourists there are vendors who want to sell them things.

(Soundbite of engines)

BLOCK: Cars drive up with stereos pumping and Chinese tourists poke through earthquake memorabilia. You can buy DVDs of disaster footage or books that the vendors make sure to leave open to the most ghastly image. A half dozen broken gray young bodies buried in the rubble.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign Language spoken)

BLOCK: I walk away from the vendors, away from the cameras on tripods up a narrow dirt path. I climb past altars where visitors have lit incense and candles, past plaques to honor the earthquake dead. And just before I reached the barrier fence at a point closest to the city I find Mu Zhenxian.

Ms. MU ZHENXIAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: She's sitting behind a low table selling DVDs, and before and after photographs of the city but thankfully none of those grisly books. Mu Zhenxian is trading in images of the earthquake that wiped out much of her family.

Ms. MU ZHENXIAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: Her mother, her brother, her daughter, her niece, her grandson. She says they didn't come out, meaning they're still somewhere down below her overlook buried in the debris, 16 members of her extended family. Her granddaughter survived but she is still hospitalized a year later.

Ms. MU ZHENXIAN: (Through Translator) The government pays the medical bills but we have to pay for our living expenses. So I have no choice that's why I'm here with this tiny business.

Ms. MU ZHENXIAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: She pulls out one of the laminated photographs she's selling. It's an aerial view of the ruined city.

Ms. MU ZHENXIAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: She points to one spot and tells me, my daughter is buried here underneath this building. She points to another wreckage pile, my niece was in the elementary school right here.

Ms. MU ZHENXIAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: Does it bother you all these people, all the noise, the music, the photograph over this spot? That must be a very painful spot for you.

Ms. MU ZHENXIAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: I cry several times a day. People ask me to talk about what happened and whenever I try to tell them I cry. The plan is for the old abandoned Beichuan to be turned into a memorial site and attraction. Tourists will be able to visit a quake museum and walk through the city wreckage. The towering mountains that surround old Beichuan are beautiful but were lethal in the end. The new Beichuan will be built on an absolutely flat river plain, 15 miles south. Wang Shole(ph) with Beichuan's propaganda department takes me.

(Soundbite of car horn)

BLOCK: So from where we're standing here all the way over the foot of those mountains, this will be the new Beichuan and it is perfectly flat. Is that the best thing about the spot?

Mr. WANG SHOLE: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: It's flat and the soil is good. And there's a good water supply. It's a good place to build the new Beichuan.

Right now it's hard to picture. This is just a broad open field with earth moving equipment leveling the soil. They cleared away eight villages to build the new city. There's no new construction yet, but local officials promise that by the end of next year the new Beichuan will be complete with homes for 30,000 people. They'll have a ground-breaking ceremony next Tuesday - May 12th - the anniversary of the earthquake and if there are any doubters, well, China's top leaders have a message for them.

President HU JINTAO (China): (Through Translator) I firmly believe that no hardship can conquer the heroic Chinese people.

BLOCK: Those were the words of President Hu Jintao soon after the earthquake when he flew to the disaster zone. And here is a message from premier Wen Jiabao.

Premier WEN JIABAO (China): (Through Translator) Raise your strong heads, stiffen your unbowed backs, ignite your ardent hearts and march forward with full confidence.

BLOCK: I asked He Wang to read me those quotes. He's the new deputy county chief of Beichuan. Everyday when he comes in to work he sees those slogans emblazoned on the lobby wall, bright red plastic Chinese characters with big exclamation points. He Wang's job? To design the new Beichuan.

Mr. HE WANG (Deputy County Chief, Beichuan): This is the master plan of the new Beichuan county.

BLOCK: Spend time with him and you realize He Wang is kind of a rock star in this office. Women come by to have their picture taken with him, other officials toast his good character. He's just 31, an architect, an urban planner and a graduate of China's top university, Tsinghua. And it says something about the central government's commitment to this project that he's been sent here all the way from Beijing, 1,000 miles away.

He's helping to fill a dramatic leadership vacuum: 400 Beichuan officials were killed in the earthquake, one-quarter of its leaders. So they've been importing officials, including He Wang to manage the reconstruction. And he tells me he's feeling pressure from all sides.

Mr. WANG: (Through translator) All of these expectations have landed on us city planners. We do feel the burden is heavy. And the pressure is quite high.

BLOCK: Pressure from locals tired of a year spent in temporary housing, anxious to move into their new homes and pressure from China's leaders, all the way up to the very top, who say, speed it up. Get this new city built fast. Oh, and by the way, when you build it, the order from Premier Wen Jiabao is make sure it embraces these six qualities: safety, livability, the character of the ethnic Qiang people, also…

Mr. WANG: (Speaks Chinese) Prosperity.

BLOCK: Prosperity.

Mr. WANG: (Speaks Chinese) Civilization.

BLOCK: Ah, a modern civilization.

Mr. WANG: And harmony. (Speaks Chinese)

BLOCK: That's a tall order. That's a lot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WANG: Yes.

BLOCK: And fast. And do it fast.

Mr. WANG: Yes, as soon as possible.

BLOCK: And what do you think? Can you do it? Do you feel optimistic?

Mr. WANG: Yes, I feel optimistic and confident.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: And Robert, that confident urban planner, He Wang, told me his goal is for the people of Beichuan to walk out of the shadow of disaster. That's a phrase I've heard several times here.

SIEGEL: Well, it's now almost a year since the earthquake, what is the timetable for rebuilding in southwest China?

BLOCK: Well, it's astonishingly fast given the scale and the scope of the devastation here, at least on paper. According to authorities in Sichuan, rural homes are to be completed by the end of this year. In cities, the goal is May of next year - that would be two years after the earthquake. And Robert, you know they love banners and slogans here, right?

SIEGEL: Mm hmm.

BLOCK: Well, everywhere you go you see slogans to this effect. I mean, here are some that I have seen: It's no good to wait for help. We must build our home on our own as early as possible. And here's another one: Speed up permanent housing, recover normal life.

SIEGEL: Our slogan for the week: Melissa reports from Sichuan Province a year after earthquake. Tell us what you're going to report on tomorrow.

BLOCK: Well, tomorrow we're going to hear about an American woman who is working here in Sichuan. She's an earthquake engineer. Her name is Elizabeth Hausler. And she has started a small nonprofit called Build Change. They're helping people in the countryside here rebuild their homes stronger and safer.

(Soundbite of construction)

BLOCK: They're worried that their house is going to collapse again. And so part of what we've been doing is reassuring some homeowners so that they can have peace of mind and they can sleep at night knowing that their house is safe.

SIEGEL: That's tomorrow on the program. Melissa Block reporting from Sichuan. Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: You're welcome, Robert.

NORRIS: And at our Web site you can see photographs of Beichuan right after the earthquake and as it rebuilds. Melissa's traveling with producer Andrea Hsu, in Sichuan Province, and they're blogging about their reporting. You can find that at

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