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by Antoaneta Bezlova

Beijing Tensions From Advancing Desert and Rising Olympic Construction

(IPS) BEIJING -- As the death toll from a devastating earthquake in southwestern China continues to climb, the disaster is proving a credibility test for the government, whose mandate is derived from maintaining stability and social order and providing for the welfare of people.

The 7.9 Richter quake, which has so far claimed 10,000 people, is the biggest natural disaster to hit China since the communist regime declassified the death toll from disasters three years ago. In 2005 the authorities declared that the move to shed secrecy was necessary to improve their disaster prevention and relief work and build a law-abiding government.

As China no longer regards the death toll in natural disasters as a state secret, pressure for a rapid response and complete transparency in the disclosure of information has built up. The disaster comes on the heels of a major human calamity in neighboring Burma where rescue efforts and aid to millions of people struck by a cyclone have been impeded by the secrecy and opaque nature of the military junta. China is eager to set a different example.

The quake, which occurred 930 miles to the south of Beijing but rattled buildings in the capital city, throwing residents into a panic, comes also just three months before hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors are supposed to gather here for the opening of the 2008 Olympics games.

Everybody from the ordinary Chinese person on the street to politicians abroad is zooming into how well Beijing would handle the unprecedented challenge.

"I would say they have their hands full," mused Zhao Shuyan, an office worker in downtown Beijing. "First they had all the worry about inflation, then the protests in Tibet and now a natural disaster. It is a bit too much."

While initially slow to release information about the full scale of devastation, the authorities and the state media quickly rebounded, gradually revising the death toll higher overnight as more details of the quake came to light. Gruelling details of some 900 students buried into the debris filtered into the news first, before the whole scope of destruction emerged.

Striking in the early hours of Monday afternoon, the powerful earthquake wrecked one of China's most populous regions, toppling buildings, schools and a chemical plant. The area of Wenchuan county in Sichuan province where the earthquake occurred is home to diverse minority groups and to the Woolong Natural reserve where 10 percent of China's famed giant-panda population live.

The capital of the province, Chengdu -- a city of 11 million people -- was crippled by power outages and the collapse of telephone networks. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who arrived there hours after the earthquake struck, was reported leaving for the epicenter of the disaster after appealing for calm and unity.

"My fellow Chinese," state television showed Wen as saying, "This is an especially challenging task. In the face of the disaster, what is most important is calmness, confidence, courage and powerful command."

The quake, at 10 km below the surface, was shallow, "which means it released more destructive energy," Zhang Guomin, a researcher at the China Seismology Bureau, told the state news agency Xinhua. "We have to guard against mudslides and collapsing buildings."

President Hu Jintao has ordered the deployment of rescue troops to help the relief operations. Some 50,000 soldiers have been sent to Sichuan province after the magnitude of the disaster became clear. Because of the collapse of road networks in the province some of the troops were approaching Wenchuan county on foot.

Meanwhile, rescuers recovered at least 50 bodies from the debris of a high school in Dujiangyan, Xinhua said. As many as 900 students were buried in the rubble. Some were struggling to break free, "while others were crying out for help," the agency's report said. Gathered in the rain near the wreckage, families of the trapped teenagers were waiting as rescuers were writing the names of the dead on a blackboard.

At least five other schools are said to have collapsed, leaving an unknown number of students buried, Xinhua reported.

"I'm particularly saddened by the number of students and children affected by this tragedy," Bush said in a statement.

"We send our deepest condolences for the victims," International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge wrote to President Hu Jintao. "The Olympic Movement is at your side, especially during these difficult moments. Our thoughts are with you."

The Sichuan earthquake is the strongest earthquake to hit China in 58 years. A more powerful earthquake of 8.6-magnitude was recorded in August 1950 in eastern Tibet. Incomplete records state 780 people perished at the time.

China's biggest natural calamity occurred in the middle of the country's political isolation during the Mao Zedong's era. Anywhere between 250,000 and 650,000 people were killed when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake in July 1976 flattened the city of Tangshan in northern China.

At that time, the Chinese government, which advocated self-sufficiency in everything from food to medical aid, barred international relief efforts and dealt with the emergency on its own. Thousands of people are believed to have died because of China's refusal.

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Albion Monitor   May 13, 2008   (

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