Tuesday, May 13, 2008
THE RAT YEAR OF DISASTERS
he Chinese Year of the Rat came in like a lion, with the worst snowstorms in half a century battering the south and central regions as the lunar new year was coming in. The expected gloriousness of Beijing's Olympic year has been beset by disasters both natural and man-made. Scandals of tainted drugs, food and toy exports soon followed, before 60 years of oppressive policies prompted a massive Tibetan uprising. The harmonious torch global relay turned into a fiasco, and China's image was further battered by hypernationalistic, often violent mobs in foreign cities.
Perhaps some of these might be indications that a re-evaluation of priorities would be in order. Have you wondered why 08-08-08 was such an auspicious day for the Olympic opening? Although the Party frowns on superstition, everybody knows the Chinese love the number 8.
Beijing's leaders had carefully chosen Aug. 8 as the opening day for the 2008 games (8-8-08), believing that it was an especially auspicious day. Many Chinese people in this officially atheist nation remain highly superstitious. The number eight, "ba" in Chinese, is closely associated with prosperity and good luck because it sounds similar to the word "fa," which means rich.It could just be that Deng Xiao Peng's dictum may not be correct; perhaps there are some things more glorious than to get rich. But so much for the man-made disasters.
Yesterday's big quake, revised to a 7.9 magnitude, struck in a faultline where continental plates collide in slow motion, raising the Himalayan mountains which surround the Tibetan plateau. The affected areas are precisely at the eastern edge of that plateau, as it drops down to the lowlands of eastern Sichuan.
As a commenter mentioned here yesterday, perhaps Mother Nature herself is a "splittist". I've taken the liberty of showing the quake location in the context of recent Tibetan demonstrations across that broad region.
The government was quick to show its concern, with Prime Minister Wen Jiaobao (by trade, a geologist) flying immediately to the affected area. He is shown constantly on television, directing relief efforts. At least 1,000 students and teachers were buried in their school at Beichuan, where it is believed around 5,000 people perished and 80% of buildings have collapsed. At Mianzhu city, between Beichuan and Chengdu, 10,000 are believed buried under rubble.
"Several thousand" were reported killed or buried in the nearby town of Hanwang after a factory collapsed, while over 600 people died and 2,300 were buried in Shifang city where there was a major chemical leak.Although slow to release information at first, the government quickly realised the disaster was far greater than they had imagined, and state-run media are now covering it non-stop. Towns higher up in elevation still haven't been heard from, and access is impossible except on foot. Foreign journalists have been evicted from these areas, but perhaps now that will change.
The quake was strong and shallow, with a depth of only 6 miles. This means its impact will be very widespread, and it will be days before the full extent of damage and casualties are known. A giant panda breeding centre is near the epicentre, but remains out of contact. In neighbouring Gansu province, a 40-car freight train derailed and caught fire, with 13 tankers full of gasoline. And that chemical spill mentioned earlier?
State media said two chemical plants in an industrial zone of the city of Shifang collapsed, spilling more than 80 tons of toxic liquid ammonia.No appeals for help have been expressed at this point, but help has been offered in any case. If they do need help in any field, I do hope they'll let it be known, and will receive it in the spirit of compassion with which it was offered.
And I also hope Burma's junta are paying attention to how their patron handles disaster on a major scale. All the best to the relief teams working, or trying to work, in both countries.