Tombs of Negligence: The Children of Sichuan


juyuan earthquake


Nothing gets me hyperventilating more quickly than rich countries allowing citizens lacking power and privilege to suffer in ways that are, at least to some extent,  preventable. 


Believe me, I am well aware of my own country’s shameful treatment of the powerless. But the cruelties we reserve for the hungry, the uninsured, the disabled, and the poor are old news. I already watched the horrors of Katrina unfold.  


But I honestly can’t say that, before the age of the Internet, I fully appreciated the seemingly limitless examples of wealthy societies that seem incapable of providing the most basic protections to those who might die without them.  


My favorite recent example of journalism shining a light on suffering amidst wealth was George Packer’s shattering portrait in The New Yorker of the slums of Lagos, Nigeria. If you have a strong stomach, read the piece and see the quality of life that the world’s 12th largest oil producing country reserves for its poorest citizens.


And now the Sichuan earthquake.


This week, virtually every new media technology brought us horrifying details of how the Chinese economic miracle had apparently not been quite miraculous enough to insure basic standards of safe school construction.  


In fact, so-called micro-blogging (Twitter, etc.) – which I now am ashamed to have occasionally ridiculed as nothing more than knowing when a friend decides to make a salami sandwich — came into its own and provided a tidal wave of instant details about the extent of death and destruction in Sichuan province.  In real time, we heard the cries of grief and the rage of Chinese citizens at a government that had allowed thousands of children to die in tombs of negligence, arrogance and shoddy construction. Who knew that cheap construction – specifically the use of concrete without steel reinforcement — is so widespread in China that it has its own nickname – “Tofu building?”


Richard Spencer, reporting from Sichuan province for The Telegraph, tells a chilling story of promises broken and young lives lost. Faced with this tidal wave of revelations, Chinese officials were forced to promise a rigorous investigation resulting in severe punishment for those at fault.


 A child is buried under the rubble at the earthquake-hit Beichuan County, Sichuan Province, May 13, 2008. China poured more troops into the earthquake-ravaged province of Sichuan on Wednesday to speed up the search for survivors as time ran out for thousands of people buried under rubble and mud. Picture taken May 13, 2008.


Smooth. Really smooth. And straight out of the authoritarian propaganda playbook: We’ll root out those at fault and punish them. “If quality problems do exist in the school buildings, those found responsible will be dealt with severely,” said Housing and Urban and Rural Construction Minister Jiang Weixin.


Excuse me Minister Jiang Weixin: Is there any chance you might be one of “those found responsible?”


I just had a sickening thought: Given the authoritarian impulse to quickly cover up crimes and negligence, at least Jiang Weixin will probably have those schools fully rebuilt before the reconstruction of New Orleans consists of anything more than Bush administration photo-ops.