SICHUAN EARTHQUAKE, 10 YEARS ON How a tragedy changed China
May 12, 2008, 2.28pm
On this day a decade ago, a magnitude-8 earthquake struck southwestern China, tearing towns and cities asunder. Powerful shock waves erupted from the epicentre in Wenchuan county, spreading rapidly across Sichuan province. Tremors were felt as far away as Thailand and Vietnam.
The quake came at a time when China had just gained a newfound confidence on the global stage. That year, it had emerged relatively unscathed in a massive financial crisis that had left other nations reeling; and in a few months, it was to host the Olympics for the first time. 2008 was to have been China’s coming-out party as a world superpower.
But the earthquake lay bare the country’s vulnerabilities. One of the worst quakes in the nation’s history, it left 87,000 people dead, 370,000 injured and 5 million homeless. The pain wrought by the natural disaster was worsened by revelations of human culpability ‒ from the shoddily built “tofu schools" that killed thousands of children, to corruption in the management of quake relief funds.
China would never again be the same.
Over the next decade, the nation worked to rebuild the homes and lives of those affected. Shiny new roads and sturdy buildings replaced the rubble. Displaced families found new homes. Bereaved parents gave birth to thousands of replacement children. Earthquake warning systems were put in place, and schools and offices were trained regularly in emergency evacuation measures.
Today, 10 years on, even as spectres of the tragedy continue to haunt survivors ‒ in the enduring loss of loved ones, ongoing calls for justice, and the struggles of elderly parents raising new children ‒ Sichuan stands testament to a tremendous transformation.
For better or worse, the quake has changed the region.
Central Sichuan province, China
Aftershocks larger than magnitude 4 146
Max magnitude 6.1
Focus: 19km underground
A heavily pregnant woman close to labour who had just lost almost everything she had. Two young girls, one whose crushed fingers had to be surgically removed on the spot and the other whose legs, numb and bloodied, were amputated in a nearby tent. When the South China Morning Post witnessed these three victims being plucked from the rubble 10 years ago, things seemed infinitely bleak. Today, we revisit them to see how their life stories have been rewritten since the quake.
THE MIRACLE BABY
I just kept thinking that the most pitiful one was the little baby girl inside me who would soon die before she could even get to see this world.
‒ Zhang Xiaoyan
It was the first time Pan Xiaoai, just days from turning 10, was hearing the story of her birth. Sitting in bed at her home in the city of Dujiangyan, the third-grader gaped as her mother, Zhang Xiaoyan, recounted the 52 excruciating hours she lay buried under the debris of a seven-storey flat, heavily pregnant with the little girl.
"I couldn't pity myself," the mother said. "I just kept thinking that the most pitiful one was the little baby girl inside me who would soon die before she could even get to see this world."
Zhang, 44, was eight months pregnant with Xiaoai when the quake struck their home on the outskirts of Chengdu in the afternoon of May 12, 2008. Her husband, Pan Yuncheng, was away when the ceiling caved in on their second-storey flat, trapping Zhang in a tiny space. Their government-built block had crumbled instantly while their neighbouring private estates remained standing, Pan told reporters then.
A heavily pregnant Zhang Xiaoyan is finally pulled out from under the debris after 52 hours.
For two days, Zhang could be fed food and water only through a small hole as rescuers struggled to find a way to pull her to safety. As the hours dragged on, it became harder to breathe and she grew sleepy even as her husband outside yelled desperately for her to stay awake.
When she was finally lifted out of the ruins into open space and fresh air past 6pm on May 14, the thunderous claps and joyful shouts of thanksgiving around her were deafening, Zhang recalled. Xiaoai came into the world a month later, in a hospital in Zhang's hometown of Urumqi, Xinjiang, some 1,700 miles from Dujiangyan. All the hospitals near the quake zone had been overcrowded.
The baby girl was to have been named "Yingao", meaning "to welcome the Olympics", which Beijing hosted in August that year. But after the quake, the couple decided to name their miracle baby "Xiaoai", or "little love", instead to honour those whose love and care helped see them through the disaster.
Zhang Xiaoyan with her daughter Pan Xiaoai soon after birth in 2008, and in April 2018.
"We hardly paid a cent in the month I spent resting before giving birth. Hainan Airlines paid for our flight to the Urumqi hospital for the delivery," Zhang said. "On top of all that, we were given a red packet of more than 3,000 yuan donated by medical practitioners, as well as a huge amount of milk powder that ensured our baby was well fed for the next three to four months."
"This was a tremendous help to us," she continued, voice thick with emotion and gratitude. "You have no idea just how poor our family was at that time. We had nothing left after the quake, even almost nothing to wear as all our clothes along with our valuables had been lost in the disaster."
Nine-year-old Pan Xiaoai sits in bed under her family’s home-made anti-quake bedframe.
Over in her bedroom, Xiaoai sat, bright eyes gazing over every now and then at the adults chatting around her, captivated by her mother's story. Above her, framing the bed, stood a sturdy metal structure holding up a thick wooden board ‒ their family's home-made anti-quake bedframe, her father declared proudly. The frame was specially designed to protect Xiaoai in the event of another similar disaster.
"Xiaoai is our little miracle, born against all odds," Pan said. "If ‒ touch wood ‒ such a massive earthquake ever strikes us again, this frame is here to ensure that our little girl gets another chance to survive."
A NOBLE CALLING
A teacher used his body to shield two of his pupils when the building came down on us. The pupils were saved, but the teacher died.
‒ Zou Hongmei
A year shy of 20, Zou Hongmei is eagerly anticipating the start of her college training later this year to become an elementary school teacher. The teenager has put the death and destruction from a decade ago behind her, but the little stumps on her hand where her fingers should have been remain a constant reminder of the catastrophic event that marked the turning point in her life.
Prior to the quake that brought down her school building – killing half of all her schoolmates and teachers – Zou had never considered becoming a teacher. At that time, she was just a third-grader daydreaming behind a textbook propped up on her desk in her second-storey classroom at Yingxiu Primary School in Wenchuan county.
At first, the pupils were instructed to crouch beneath their desks. But when the shaking intensified, her Chinese-language teacher, Ms Fan, told them to run. "Run, run out of the building, as fast as you can," the children were told. The school came crumbling down only seconds later, killing Ms Fan, who had been shepherding other children to safety.
"From then on, I believed that becoming a teacher is a noble calling. With my limited power, I want to help others, just like what Mr Zhang did for my fellow schoolmates." ‒ Zou Hongmei
Zou was pinned down by falling debris as she reached the first floor, her right arm trapped underneath it for the next 2½ days before rescuers managed to reach her. She was eventually freed, but her fingers had to be amputated. Still, she counts herself lucky to make it out alive, unlike the more than 200 pupils and 20 teachers who lost their lives in the school that tragic day.
"Among the teachers who died, I loved Ms Fan the most. She was such a good teacher and so kind to me all the time," Zou said, the events from 10 years ago still vivid in her mind.
"I also remember another teacher, Mr Zhang Miya, who used his body to shield two of his pupils when the building came down on us. The two pupils were later saved, but Mr Zhang died," she said, adding that Zhang's wife, who also taught at the school, and his only son, a toddler, were also killed in the quake.
Zou Hongmei, 19, has taken a summer job at Yingxiu Primary School, under which she was trapped 10 years ago.
"From then on, I believed that becoming a teacher is a noble calling. Although Mr Zhang had never taught me and I didn't know him when he was alive, I want to learn from him. With my limited power, I want to help others, just like what Mr Zhang did for my fellow schoolmates."
The quake didn't leave its mark on Zou just physically. For months after the disaster, the girl insisted on sleeping in tents outside with her mother as she could not bear to go to bed indoors for fear the building would cave in on her.
Even a year on, she was still haunted by nightmares. "In my dreams, I am buried by the rubble and am in extreme pain," she told the Post in 2009.
Five years later, when a smaller quake struck her home and she felt the ground move, she dropped everything, running outside her home in terror, barefoot, and bursting into tears. Her village took no damage in that quake.
Today, Zou and her family live in a sturdy house that her father built almost entirely out of wood to ensure minimal damage in the event of another massive earthquake. It wasn't until after they moved into this house that the teenager felt safer to live indoors.
Sharing her anticipation at starting college in the city of Nanchong, a four-hour drive from her home in Yingxiu, Zou said: "I have received so much help from other people. I hope to spare no effort in paying it forward to someone else."
THE EXUBERANCE OF LIFE
I'm glad enough that I'm alive. Whether I have legs or not, it doesn't matter.
‒ Zhang Chunmei
Darkness, despair and death. Para-swimmer Zhang Chunmei has seen it all.
Ten years ago, the classmate who caused her to trip when she grabbed Zhang by the ankles as their third-floor classroom came crashing down on them, bled to death underneath the rubble behind her.
For nearly three days, the 11-year-old Zhang lay in the dark, legs trapped under a concrete slab just centimetres from her friend's lifeless body, repeatedly willing herself to stay awake hoping for help to arrive. By the time she was rescued almost 70 hours after the quake, it was too late to save her legs ‒ they had to be amputated almost five inches above her knees.
More recently, in March, another close friend died suddenly in a car crash, leaving Zhang deeply affected. She had trained intensively alongside Huang Wenpan, 20, overcoming their respective disabilities in the pool. Huang, who suffered from infantile paralysis, was a national swimmer who had bagged five gold medals at the Rio Paralympics just two years earlier.
Zhang Chunmei’s legs had to be amputated nearly five inches above her knees.
Fate has dealt a cruel hand to the people around her. Yet Zhang, dressed in a simple printed T-shirt with her long hair bundled up in a ponytail, betrayed no sign of anger or resentment as she recounted the incidents at a park near her home in the town of Yingxiu, Wenchuan county.
The cheerful young woman exudes an exuberance towards life that makes one feel as if she is consciously living each day to the fullest in place of all her friends who had their beautiful young lives cut short by tragedy.
"If I have any thoughts and feelings about the quake 10 years ago, I would say, it is truly a blessing for me to have made it out alive," Zhang said. "I'm glad enough that I'm alive. Whether I have legs or not, it doesn't matter."
Today, the 21-year-old Zhang Chunmei’s biggest dream is to qualify for China's paralympics swim team.
The young woman, now a member of the Sichuan provincial swim team for people with disabilities, trains daily, swimming a gruelling four miles every day. She won a silver medal at a national swim meet in 2015 and her next goal in life, she shyly confided, was to qualify for China's paralympics swim team.
"What others can do, I can do, too," Zhang said. "Even if I fail the first time, I can always try again. I'm not that different from others; it's just that I don't have my legs any more."
"For seven years, she lived happily on this earth." That's how one grief-stricken mother chose to remember her young daughter, who perished alongside thousands of other children across Sichuan province when their shoddily built school buildings came crumbling down on them during the earthquake.
The woman's words were immortalised in an installation art piece, "Remembering", by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei outside the Haus der Kunst art museum in Munich, Germany, in 2009. Ai's work ‒ created with nearly 9,000 brightly coloured children's backpacks to form the quote ‒ alongside his efforts to document the total number of student deaths in the disaster, led to the Chinese authorities targeting and eventually detaining him on unrelated charges, his supporters say.
Dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s artwork in Munich, Germany, was created with 9,000 children’s backpacks.
China's poorly constructed "tofu schools" are believed to be the key reason so many children died in the quake. The use of the term "tofu" to describe shoddily built structures was first coined in 1998 by then-premier Zhu Rongji, who said during a tour of flood dykes on the Yangtze River that they were as flimsy and porous as tofu dregs.
Some 5,300 schoolchildren were killed in the Sichuan quake, according to official statistics, though parents and activists say the figure is closer to 10,000.
In September 2008 an official tasked to look into the matter admitted that a rush to build schools throughout the country during China's economic boom potentially contributed to the slipshod construction that ultimately killed the children when the buildings failed to hold up in the quake.
“Because we have been building schools at a very fast pace in a short amount of time, some construction problems may exist," Ma Zongjin, chairman of the post-quake government committee of experts, said at a news conference.
“More than a thousand schools experienced issues, including problems with the buildings’ construction quality, with possibilities that the structures were not entirely sound or the materials not very strong."
The schools where children died
Source: www.usgs.gov, aiweiwei.com
Hover your mouse over the map to see the the number of pupil deaths at schools. Coloured lines show the intensity of the quake, with red the most powerful. The information was collected in a citizen survey led by activist Ai Weiwei.
Many schools were built without adequate steel reinforcements and used cheap, hollow slab floors, researchers and engineers who surveyed the post-quake sites found. And while building codes and safety standards were already in place at the time, they were either not strictly enforced or the schools that collapsed had been built before the laws were passed.
H. Kit Miyamoto, head of global structural and earthquake engineering firm Miyamoto International and one of the first foreign engineers to arrive in Sichuan to survey the damage, recalled studying the ruins of Juyuan Middle School in the city of Dujiangyan in the provincial capital of Chengdu.
The three-storey school had been built in 1986, before the national construction law was passed, using hollow floor planks and brittle concrete beams, Miyamoto found. Over 700 people, mostly children, were killed when the school collapsed.
“The way the Chinese schools were built – I have never seen them built like this,” he said. Essentially all of the walls were made of brick, and those brick walls were supporting really heavy concrete. There’s a huge flaw in the design philosophy of that system.”
Children’s backpacks lie unclaimed at the site of a collapsed primary school in the city of Wufu.
Revelations about the hastily and shoddily built "tofu schools" drew strong condemnation amid widespread international media coverage. The scandal further dented the reputation of the Chinese construction sector, already known for its corrupt practices and cutting of corners that often led to the use of cheap, inferior building materials to lower costs.
China took steps to rectify the problem. In 2009, a nation-wide initiative was launched to ensure safe primary and middle schools, injecting 380 billion yuan (US$60 billion) over the next two years towards the goal of "making schools China's safest locations". Inspections were conducted in educational institutes, reinforcing and rebuilding them to meet national safety standards and developing strategies to educate teachers and pupils alike on safety.
In 2010, the country's Tort Liability Law was also put into effect, placing strict civil liability for construction collapses on developers and contractors, providing the incentive for them to ensure the safety of their buildings.
Rescuers carry out the bodies of pupils buried under the debris of a collapsed school building in the city of Dujiangyan.
Yet, even as the Chinese government worked to address its "tofu projects" problem, it continued to deflect or censor criticism of the shoddy construction.
Ten years on, at a press briefing in April, Yin Shikui, head of the Sichuan provincial department for urban and rural housing construction, dodged a question about the “tofu schools”.
“The damage to buildings was mainly because the degree of the quake was far greater than what the buildings were able to withstand,” Yin said. “The country has since changed its policies to ensure the reconstructed buildings are more earthquake-resistant.”
Another official, Liu Jie, deputy inspector of the Sichuan provincial health and family planning commission, said: "Because it's a natural disaster, you can't say that the government is required to compensate you. It's out of humanitarian and government concern that they provided treatment and compensation."
Critics say the Chinese government, which they believe should be held accountable for the inferior buildings, have relentlessly jailed or detained activists fighting for justice and fair compensation over the years.
“If we cannot admit any little mistake, then our society cannot improve,” said Tan Zuoren, an activist who has helped bereaved parents seek justice and compensation for the past decade. “Whether it’s the government or the Communist Party, is it really this hard to ask them to apologise? This is a very small cost to win back people’s hearts and stabilise society,”
The issue remains a highly politically sensitive topic to this day.
RACE TO REBUILD
The magnitude-8 earthquake devastated entire cities, towns and villages not only across Sichuan province in the country’s southwest but also in nearby Gansu and Shaanxi.
It affected an area of 500,000 sq km, the size of Spain, causing medium to severe damage to 130,000 sq km, or an area as big as Greece. More than 46 million Chinese people were impacted, over 15 million of whom lost their homes. Economic losses amounted to some 845 billion yuan (US$133 billion), equivalent to the gross domestic product of Central Asia’s biggest economy Kazakhstan.
Immediately after the quake, China deployed its provincial rescue teams to the affected areas. Some 20,000 troops were dispatched within 24 hours. By the third day, 113,000 military troops and police had been sent into the disaster zone.
They were, however, unprepared to tackle a disaster of such scale. Even as rescuers raced to reach the victims, the region was struck by high-intensity aftershocks ‒ more than 3,300 within three days. Some 600 troops had to make their way into Wenchuan county on foot, working around harsh terrain, blocked roads and the risk of landslides.
Faced with the staggering scale of damage as reports of the devastation rolled in, Beijing realised that the fallout from the disaster was not something it could handle on its own. For the first time in recent history, China sought international assistance.
"The whole world is standing behind you and will help you," United Nations then-secretary general Ban Ki-moon told survivors in the town of Yingxiu, near the epicentre of the quake, after the disaster.
Nations around the world sent a total of 19 emergency rescue and relief teams, with the first batch from Japan, Russia, South Korea and Singapore arriving on the third day. Help also came from Britain, France, Germany and Indonesia, among others.
Reconstruction efforts went into full swing just days after the quake as Beijing saw the urgency of quickly repairing and restoring the infrastructure in the province, where millions of people were now deprived of shelter, electricity, running water and other basic needs.
In a matter of days, the government had allocated 860 million yuan (US$135 million) to disaster relief and set up over 120,000 temporary tents to house the displaced in the region.
Resources were mobilised from across the nation, as the government paired the 18 worst-affected counties with more-affluent regions in a "buddy" system. For instance, the hardest-hit Beichuan county was paired with Shandong province while Wenchuan county at the epicentre of the quake was partnered with Guangdong province. The arrangement saw the rich provinces provide money, materials and manpower to rebuild their buddy counties in Sichuan.
The rapid speed at which the region was rebuilt, transformed and modernised in the decade following the quake was impressive.
Three months after the quake, more than 10 million people in Sichuan had been resettled from tents into stable housing, according to officials. Within two years, most of the over 40,000 rehabilitation and reconstruction projects had been completed, with damaged houses restored to match national safety standards. Public buildings were reinforced to at least one degree higher than the area’s seismic risk.
The success of the reconstruction work in the region could be attributed to the sheer amount of resources China had at its disposal to pour into post-disaster efforts, according to H. Kit Miyamoto, head of global structural and earthquake engineering firm Miyamoto International. The company is best known for its work in reconstructing buildings after major quakes in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2010 and 2011 respectively.
“The way China has reconstructed the whole Sichuan region is amazing,” Miyamoto said. “No other country can afford to do this -- total reconstruction by the government.”
For some communities, though, while villagers had their homes rebuilt quite quickly, they had issues with the designs. Ku Hok-bun, associate professor of applied and social sciences at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said there was "spatial injustice" in that some homes were not the most suitable for people’s livelihoods. Local people, particularly those in marginal groups such as ethnic minorities, did not have their voices adequately heard in the design processes, he said.
Still, the rebuilding of basic infrastructure in Sichuan, including water supply services and roads, was "largely satisfactory, according to a report by the Centre for Public Impact, an American non-profit agency started by the Boston Consulting Group.
"The project-financed health and water facilities are operating at levels higher than before the earthquake," the 2016 report stated. "The vulnerability to flood and seismic hazard of all project-financed infrastructure has been reduced through much-improved seismic engineering standards and relocating facilities to less-vulnerable sites."
'I'VE LOST EVERYTHING'
Those who moved into the government apartments have also lost their land, their livelihoods and now they can’t even pay their monthly gas and water bills.
‒ Li Fucheng
Li Fucheng couldn’t have asked for more in life 10 years ago. The farmer and his wife lived comfortably in a little brick house near their paddy fields, harvesting enough crops to eat and feed their livestock every year.
The quake changed all that. Today, Li, 63, puts up in a makeshift squatter, hollow bamboo sticks propping up his tarpaulin roof. He has no access to electricity, no running water, no land to till and no livestock to raise.
Shihua village, where he lives, was badly affected when the quake struck the county of Dujiangyan on the outskirts of the provincial capital of Chengdu in 2008. Many of their fellow villagers perished in the disaster. But Li and his wife were spared as they were toiling in their open paddy field at the time.
When they went back to their house after the tremors passed, they found it still standing ‒ to their surprise ‒ but so badly damaged that it was no longer safe to live in.
"So I rebuilt my home with materials I found in my old one," Li said. He was offered housing in four-storey apartments built by the local government, but he turned that down.
"I rejected the government housing because as a party member, I believe that the flats are better reserved for those who are really needy," he said.
"Then, the local officials told me that my home was considered a dilapidated building and so they cut the power supply. I’ve received almost none of the relief materials donated to us quake victims."
Prior to the quake, Li would harvest nearly 2,000kg of grain, corn and soya beans annually from his 4,000 square metres of land.
"We would consume about 1,000kg ourselves and use the rest to raise our pigs, chickens and ducks," he said.
But after the quake, the local government merged his land with his fellow villagers’, later leasing it to a firm that would pay them a few hundred yuan a month in rent to grow kiwi fruit on it.
The arrangement worked well for the first three to four years, until the company went bust.
"Now, it’s just a waste, seeing all the fertile farmland in my village lying there untouched for years," he lamented.
The villagers were also banned from raising livestock or poultry to prevent environmental pollution. As a result, many were forced to leave their hometown to seek a new livelihood, he said.
"Those who moved into the government apartments don’t get it any better than I do," he said. "They’ve also lost their land, their livelihoods and now they can’t even pay their monthly gas and water bills."
Destroyed giant panda habitats the size of South Korea were restored after the quake.
Ecological environments in the disaster areas were also restored. The quake and subsequent landslides had damaged swaths of woodland, mountains and wildlife. In the years that followed, the government helped restore around 300,000 sq km of trees and vegetation, official figures show.
Destroyed giant panda habitats of almost 100,000 sq km ‒ the size of South Korea ‒ were repaired, according to the provincial government. The China Conservation and Research Centre in Sichuan is the world’s largest home for pandas, and the quake had completely destroyed the centre’s Wolong base, causing a handful of the creatures to flee out of fear.
More than 1.4 billion yuan (US$220 million) was put into reconstructing the panda centre. The Hong Kong government helped fund the Wolong base restoration in an area of lower seismic risk, some 23km from its original site. The new base opened in May 2016 and is now home to 55 pandas. As a show of gratitude, admission to the park for Hong Kong residents is free.
Beijing patted itself on the back for its reconstruction efforts, referring to the results as "the miracle of the Four Nos": there was no famine, migrants, disease outbreak and social unrest after the quake. "This is a miracle in the history of human disasters," the central government declared a year after the quake.
One dark spot marred the success of China’s collective rebuilding and reconstruction efforts after the disaster.
In the wake of the national tragedy, China received an outpouring of help and support from around the world. Within a month after the quake, the country had received 45 billion yuan (US$7 billion) in donations. By the end of 2009, the figure had reached almost 270 billion (US$42 billion), according to the National Audit Office.
Not all the money was properly managed. Many of the funds were not used as intended. Auditors logged thousands of complaints about corrupt or improper official behaviour in handling the quake relief funds after the disaster.
CREATIVE ACCOUNTING: HOW FUNDS WERE MISUSED
Applying repeatedly for the same quake relief projects
In the city of Chongzhou, 1.23 billion yuan (US$193 million) was embezzled after its tourism and transport bureaus filed paperwork for relief aid twice. Another 240 million yuan (US$38 million) was misappropriated after various reconstruction projects across Sichuan and Gansu provinces made redundant applications for funds, double counting more than 8,600 households for housing subsidies in a dozen counties.
Spending earthquake funds on unrelated, non-essential, even frivolous items
In one smaller case, a branch of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China in Fucheng district in the city of Mianyang, Sichuan province, splurged on 56 pairs of Nike sports shoes for its staff members, reimbursing the expenses from the bank's special fund for earthquake relief as "raincoats, rubber boots, and umbrellas". Outraged internet users decried the incident as "despicable" and "shameless".
Inflating budgets for reconstruction projects
The budgets for many rebuilding projects were also found to have been deliberately inflated. In four such projects in Sichuan's Mao county, 20 of the building reports were determined "not truthful", government auditors revealed in 2010.
Falsely reporting higher costs of rebuilding works
At the quake epicentre in Wenchuan county, a random check on a project for six residential buildings found that actual construction cost came up to only 35 per cent of the reported spending of about 2.6 million yuan (US$407,000).
A SCANDAL UNFOLDS
Flamboyant internet celebrity Guo Meimei’s photos stoked widespread public suspicion over how Red Cross donations were used.
In 2011, a Chinese celebrity's photos flaunting her lavish lifestyle on social media became the catalyst for exposing the Red Cross Society's mismanagement of the Sichuan quake relief funds.
Guo Meiling, known as Guo Meimei on her Weibo microblog with about 2 million followers, had claimed to be working for a Red Cross subsidiary even as she regularly shared pictures of herself posing with luxury cars and branded handbags at upscale resorts and restaurants. After angry online vigilantes dug into her personal life, it emerged that her lover was a shareholder of an investment-holding group affiliated with the Red Cross.
The findings fuelled allegations that the donations were lining the pockets of Red Cross employees, sparking international outrage. The government-run Red Cross Society of China ‒ the country's biggest charity organisation ‒ had reported receiving 1.74 billion yuan (US$274 million) in local and overseas donations for post-quake aid in 2008.
As the scandal unfolded, the organisation's executive vice-president Wang Wei admitted to spending an unauthorised 4.2 million yuan (US$660,000) on medical training equipment, but blamed it on technical glitches. In 2013, the organisation admitted it had redirected to other projects over 84 million yuan (US$13 million) specifically earmarked to rebuild an important Taoist site damaged in the quake.
The following year, Guo was arrested on unrelated charges. After the arrest, she appeared on state television expressing tearful remorse for her reprehensible behaviour that ruined the Red Cross' reputation. She was subsequently sentenced to five years' jail.
But the damage had been done. Although the Red Cross had all along denied ties with Guo, public confidence in the charity had been severely dented in the face of evidence of corrupt mismanagement.
The intense international media attention that the scandal attracted had also plunged all of China's charity organisations into a massive credibility crisis, from which the sector has yet to recover even 10 years on.
At a media briefing in April 2018, Sichuan official Lu Pandeng was eager to assure the press of the changes made since the scandal a decade ago. “Our management of charity donation funds is stricter, more transparent and more public than the management of our financial funds,” Lu said.
But today, China has one of the world’s lowest participation rates in donating money. Just 8 per cent of its population donate money to charities, according to the World Giving Index, from the Britain-based Charities Aid Foundation.
The sudden deluge of injured or maimed survivors sorely tested the limits of China's medical system. But it also contributed to rapid medical developments after the quake, medical professionals say.
The quake left almost 380,000 people wounded, many of them seriously. Due to the lack of medical resources in Sichuan, some 10,000 of them had to be transferred to hundreds of hospitals across 20 other provinces and cities, including Beijing and Shanghai. More medical facilities were urgently needed to cope with the sudden influx of patients.
At the Sichuan Provincial People's Hospital in downtown Chengdu, two temporary wards had to be set up to cope with the more than 10,000 patients it took in after the quake, according to Zhu Shiqiong, chief nurse in the recovery unit. But even that proved insufficient as many patients still had to be sent elsewhere.
Ten thousand quake victims had to be transported to hundreds of other hospitals across the nation.
“Our resources were so limited that we had to transfer patients via cars and planes to receive treatment in other provinces,” Zhu said.
A large number of quake victims also required long-term rehabilitation treatment. At the time, rehab professions in Sichuan numbered fewer than 200. There was a severe shortage, said professor Cecilia Li, from the rehabilitation sciences department at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
In the short-term, volunteers from across the nation flew into Sichuan to train local professionals. But as the need for such services grew within the province, the Hong Kong government provided 200 million yuan (US$31 million) to help the hospital set up the Sichuan-Hong Kong Rehabilitation Centre.
The centre opened in April 2013, offering its services free to all survivors of the Sichuan quake while treating others for a fee. It has become a training base of sorts for the medical rehabilitation field in the province and across China, according to the centre's chief physician Li Yi.
A doctor fits an earthquake victim with an artificial leg at the Sichuan Limbs Maim Restoration Centre in Chengdu.
“After the quake, the development of our rehabilitation fields was very fast. We were very quickly able to elevate it to another level,” Li said.
Today, the centre continues to treat more than 300 amputees from the quake, one-third of them children, said the centre's chief medical officer Huang Lin. On average, adult amputees require replacements for their prosthetics once every two to three years, while children need a change once every three to six months.
Other parts of society also adapted to help maimed quake survivors. Prior to 2008, accessibility services for disabled people were virtually non-existent.
In the badly hit county of Dujiangyan, the Dujiangyan Youai School had collapsed during the quake, killing many children and leaving 117 of them maimed for life. The school was rebuilt and outfitted with ramps and elevators using funds provided by the China Disabled Person's Federation, and aided by US tech company Cisco. It was touted as China's first fully accessible school.
A PLACE TO CALL HOME
Things are good here. It feels like a home, and we all feel like a family.
‒ Li Yi
In a stout five-storey building in Shuangliu, a half-hour's drive from the provincial capital of Chengdu, children play within colourful walls cheerily decorated with bright plastic stickers and handwritten Chinese expressions of gratitude.
When it first opened its doors in August 2009, Ankang Home was flooded with almost 700 orphans ‒ many of whom had nowhere to go and no one to turn to after losing their parents in the Sichuan earthquake a year earlier. Today, the orphanage houses fewer than 50 children as most of those it took in a decade ago have since gone on to college or moved elsewhere to work and start their own families.
The Ankang Home is one of countless initiatives that pooled the resources of the entire nation, in both public and private sectors, not just to restore the infrastructure damaged in the quake but also to help those who survived against the odds rebuild their lives after the disaster.
The orphanage was funded by Rizhao Steel, a Shandong-based manufacturer controlled by the local government. The firm provided an initial donation of nearly 160 million yuan (US$25 million), which was managed by the non-profit agency Children and Teenagers' Fund.
"There have been all sorts of changes here over the past 10 years, just like these trees. They were just tiny saplings. Now, they’ve grown so much bigger. The children have also grown up." ‒ Hu Yuanzhong, director of Ankang Home
For the children who lost their families and homes in the quake, Ankang's workers and other residents helped assuage their loss and fill the gaping void the disaster had left in their lives.
"After the May 12 disaster, I felt that all hope had been lost," Yang Wen, a young woman at the centre, wrote. "But Ankang Home gave me the courage to keep going forward."
Teenager Zhang Minghao thanked the orphanage staff for having cared for him from the day he arrived at the home aged just three. "I was just a tiny tot back then," he wrote on a wall lined with words of appreciation and happy photos of other Ankang children. "Today, I have grown up and grown taller. I'm grateful for the people who sacrificed for me. I will love you forever."
The colourful walls of Ankang Home are lined with its children’s handwritten notes of gratitude.
"When we first got here, back in primary school, we would still talk about the earthquake and what happened. But we no longer talk about it now," said Li Yi, 18, whose home in Pingwu county ‒ one of the worst-hit areas ‒ was destroyed in the quake. He was one of those fortunate enough to make it out of his school in time as tiles rained down from his classroom ceiling. He had lost both parents before the quake, but officials transferred him to Ankang along with the other post-quake orphans when the home opened.
“Things are good here. It feels like a home, and we all feel like a family,” Li said.
“There have been all sorts of changes here over the past 10 years, just like these trees. They were just tiny saplings. Now, they’ve grown so much bigger. The children have also grown up,” the home’s director Hu Yuanzhong said.
Caretaker Zeng Yuanji, known affectionately to the children as "Uncle Zeng", said the disaster remained a sensitive topic for many of the home's residents, especially when it came to discussing their deceased parents.
"Some are more introverted and others more extroverted, so we use different methods to guide them emotionally," he explained. "My hope is that they will enter society confidently, walk well in each step of their life and achieve their dreams."
TORMENTED BY FEAR AND GUILT
Zeng's observations skim the surface of the emotional trauma the disaster has wrought on the quake survivors, many of whom continue to suffer psychologically even years after the event.
Some remain haunted by fears and nightmares of buildings caving in on them or of being trapped for days in pain under rubble. Others experience anger, guilt and loathing for having been the lucky ones to make it out alive while their loved ones died.
Grieving parents burn offerings to their children who died under the rubble at Xinjian Primary School in the county of Dujiangyan.
“It was a very painful process [for the quake survivors]. Many of them lost their family members,” said Li Yi, chief physician at the Sichuan-Hong Kong Rehabilitation Centre. “At the time [after the quake], some survivors were not willing to interact with others at all.”
Many chose to shut themselves out, insisting on being alone even at meal times, he added. “This type of behaviour was especially evident during the Chinese New Year and other holidays.”
As the survivors' need for counselling grew more evident in the months following the disaster, mental health services were set up in several quake-hit zones.
In the hardest-hit Beichuan county, the Beichuan mental health service centre was founded in April 2009 ‒ days after local official Feng Xiang took his life following his failure to come to terms with the loss of his eight-year-old son in the quake. The centre's 60 stations across the county provided group counselling to help survivors cope with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.
Yuan Yuan, a fourth-grader at Yinxiu Primary School, plays music to mourn one of her teachers killed in the quake.
It was a similarly painful process for survivors at Yingxiu Primary School, where half the school ‒ 222 pupils and 20 teachers ‒ were killed.
In the wake of the tragedy, the school began a process of recovery and reconstruction with help from partners such as the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Teachers and pupils underwent psychological treatment as part of their recovery process, and the school moved into a new building erected at its original site.
"The earthquake hit our school very hard, both physically and psychologically, as we suffered immense death," principal Dong Xuefeng said, adding that the new school building was now "the most beautiful and safest school in the county".
After the quake, the Chinese authorities realised that they had to help the region's tens and thousands of bereaved parents move on after losing their only child.
Local governments began an intensive campaign to encourage couples to have new children, promising free medical services, financial support and even assisted reproductive options.
In the 10 years since then, more than 3,500 babies have been born to families who lost their first child in the quake, official figures show. In the hardest-hit Beichuan county alone where 1,000 families lost their first child, a total of 1,006 "replacement babies" have been born.
The success of the government campaign, however, created new problems for many of these bereaved parents, who were already in their 40s or older when they had their second children.
NEW BABIES, NEW PROBLEMS
My daughter is 43 years younger than me. I can't allow anything bad to happen to me because I still have a family to raise and elderly parents to support.
‒ Lu Shihua
At a glance, it seems as if Lu Shihua has moved on with life since the quake robbed him of his teenage daughter Lu Fang 10 years ago. His wife had died giving birth to the girl 16 years earlier, and the loss of his only remaining family member in the disaster left him inconsolable for months.
Today, Lu, 51, has started a new family. Stuck behind his bedroom door at his home in Piankou township in the county of Beichuan, is a picture of a red sun with silver beams and a smiley face. The art piece is the work of his seven-year-old daughter Lu Rui.
"I had to move on with life somehow and the government was encouraging families to reproduce, so I gave life a second chance and tried for another child," said Lu, who remarried in 2010.
Lu Shihua with photos of his two daughters, Lu Fang (left), killed in the quake, and Lu Rui, now in primary school.
When the baby girl was born, Lu was overjoyed. Then he quickly began to worry about the child's future.
"My daughter is 43 years younger than me, and I am my family's sole breadwinner ... I can't allow anything bad to happen to me or let myself fall ill because I still have a family to raise and elderly parents to support," he said.
Lu, who lives with his wife, daughter and his parents in their 70s, is most concerned about whether he would be able to put his child through college.
"By the time my daughter goes to university, I would be well past my 60s ... Before she hits adulthood, she would be faced with the burden of having to care for her elderly parents.
"As a result, I have started questioning myself in the past two years: just what can I offer my little girl to give her the life that she deserves?"
Lu Shihua’s teenage daughter Lu Fang perished under the rubble of her school building in the quake in 2008.
Still, Lu considers himself one of the luckier ones.
"The second child of some parents were born with disabilities or illnesses. These families are struggling far more than we are," he said.
"I really wish the government would look into these problems faced by such 'replacement child' families who heeded their call to reproduce."
There were also bereaved parents who wanted desperately – and yet failed – to have another child after the quake.
Their failure to reproduce even as they saw other families around them step out from the shadows of grief to welcome new babies, only caused them greater sorrow.
MOVING ON, CHILDLESS
My wife, who was pregnant, caught one cold after another and eventually lost our baby.
‒ Liu Ning
Although schoolteacher Liu Ning speaks stoically of his personal experience in front of the camera today, not so long ago, he was at the end of his rope.
"Twice, I attempted suicide with my wife. In September 2008, we used gas. [After that failed], we planned a second suicide by a cliff in 2009," said Liu, 52. The couple never saw through the second attempt.
Liu had led more than 130 of his pupils in Beichuan Secondary School to safety when the quake struck, but his daughter did not make it out in time and was buried under the rubble. Over 1,000 pupils were killed when the building crumbled.
"The earthquake took everything I had. My only beloved daughter … she was not even 13 [when she died]. She was my biggest pride and hope for the future," he said.
After the tragedy, a grieving Liu and his wife tried to have another child, but the difficulties they faced proved insurmountable.
At the time, they were still sleeping in tents and living off donations as homes in their county had yet to be rebuilt. Poor distribution of aid left the couple struggling in the cold with inadequate food, water and warm clothing.
I saw them moving expired milk out of the warehouses at night for people to wash their feet. And expired instant noodles was used to feed pigs.‒ Liu Ning
Liu's wife became pregnant – twice – but suffered a miscarriage both times due to their poor living conditions and a lack of nutrition, he said.
"The two of us were allotted only one person's share of food and blankets as she was not working," Liu recalled, adding that repeated appeals to the authorities to provide for his wife were ignored.
"It was so hard just to ask for an extra bottle of water and instant noodles. And when winter came, we didn't have enough clothes and blankets to keep warm. My wife, who was pregnant, caught one cold after another and eventually lost our baby."
The second miscarriage happened a year later, around July 2009. There was in fact sufficient donated food to go around, but poor management saw the items sit in warehouses until they expired, according to Liu.
"I saw them moving expired milk out of the warehouses at night for people to wash their feet. And expired instant noodles was used to feed pigs," he said. "It was so hard just to survive. [With our multiple losses,] all our hopes were gone."
The couple eventually received counselling after a Guangzhou reporter made their plight known in the media.
Today, Liu dedicates himself to educating his students at the rebuilt Beichuan Secondary School.
"I'm better at handling my emotions now ... Seeing my pupils turn out well is the best way for me to remember my daughter," he said. "My pupils often refer to me as their 'papa' and I see them as my own."
For 10 long years, Sang Jun has been clinging to a promise. A solemn promise made by former premier Wen Jiabao when he visited Mianzhu to survey the damage after the quake in 2008.
The 49-year-old pig farmer’s son Sang Xingpeng had been killed alongside 125 other pupils when Fuxin No.2 Primary School collapsed during the disaster that devastated their town.
"Two days after the quake, Wen Jiabao came to Hanwang township. He stood on the rubble telling us to go home to wait for the news," Sang recounted. "An explanation would be given so that our children would not have died in vain, he told us."
Sang is still waiting.
Then-premier Wen Jiabao comforts a quake survivor in the town of Yingxiu in Wenchuan county.
The bereaved parent is one voice representing thousands of others who lost their only child to the magnitude-8 earthquake that shook Sichuan province a decade ago.
Officials have blamed the extreme shockwaves for bringing down thousands of schoolhouses across the province and causing extensive structural damage to the buildings. But the parents say many of their children’s lives could have been saved had the schoolhouses not been so shoddily built.
Fuxing No.2 Primary School has been described as "the textbook example of China’s ‘tofu projects’". The term "tofu projects" was first coined in 1998 by then-premier Zhu Rongji when he said during a tour of flood dykes on the Yangtze River that the constructions were as flimsy and porous as tofu dregs.
After the quake, these collapsed buildings were referred to as examples of China’s "tofu projects". The term "tofu projects" was first coined in 1998 by then-premier Zhu Rongji when he said during a tour of flood dykes on the Yangtze River that the constructions were as flimsy and porous as tofu dregs.
The bereaved parents’ persistent petitions over the past 10 years have gained little attention, however, bringing them only round-the-clock surveillance, police intimidation and even detention.
To outsiders, the quake anniversary is only an occasion to look back at the events that played out in Sichuan years ago. But the parents who were robbed of their young children in the disaster relive the trauma of May 12 every single day, civil rights activist Tan Zuoren said.
"Why won’t the parents give up fighting? They press on not just to fulfil their emotional need, but also because they simply have to see justice served," Tan said. "They are not after financial compensation. They simply want an official apology."
Tan, 64, was an anesthetist before he turned to activism. He was jailed for five years in 2010 on state subversion charges after leading an independent civil investigation into poorly built schoolhouses following the quake.
Sang has previously also been detained for a year for his activism over the matter. Today, he continues to lead a group of about 100 parents in their thrice-yearly appeal for an official investigation into the substandard school buildings. But the number of parent participants have been dwindling, he said.
Only about 175 pupils out of 301 made it out alive when Fuxin No.2 Primary School collapsed. All other buildings around the school remained standing, Sang said. The grieving parents later found no reinforcement bars in the debris. Concrete pieces among the rubble also quickly crumbled when they were picked up, he added.
A civilian-led investigation found evidence showing how the schools were built with substandard materials.
"If this was completely the result of a natural disaster, I would have nothing to say… but how can we rest when the government insists that the school’s collapse was caused only by the shockwaves from the quake," he asked.
At least these bereaved parents managed to bury their own children. Others in Beichuan county can do nothing as their children’s bodies remain under the rubble to this day.
The old Beichuan county, a three-hour drive from the provincial capital of Chengdu, has been transformed into a preserved monument and a destination for millions of tourists to remember those who died. The area was hit the hardest during the quake.
Collapsed buildings in the old Beichuan town, one of the hardest-hit areas, have been preserved to commemorate victims. The Beichuan Earthquake Museum was built on the site of Beichuan Middle School which was destroyed in the quake.
At the site ‒ the crisp air silent but for the occasional chirp of a bird ‒ stands a giant tombstone. People who visit place flowers by the stone and bow to pay their respects to the thousands of children buried beneath it. Others crushed by collapsed government and commercial buildings have their names and pictures displayed on big boards built beside the ruins.
Some victims, however, have been forgotten.
More than 1,000 pupils of Beichuan High School were killed when the school crumbled in the quake, and almost half of them remain buried deep under the rubble to this day, according to victims’ parents and activists. Tan, the activist, has described the school as "the textbook example of China’s 'tofu projects'".
To completely erase all geographical and landscape features within the proximity of Beichuan High School ... and to build a museum on top of it is extremely cruel and inhumane. ‒ Tan Zuoren, activist
The site of the ruined school was converted into the Beichuan Earthquake Museum, while about 500 of its pupils who died were cremated and collectively buried in the museum after their DNAs were matched with their relatives but there was no sign pointing to their burial place.
Activist Tan said the museum was the result of the political ideology of Zhou Yongkang, former Sichuan provincial party chief and state security tsar before he was toppled by corruption charges years later.
"To completely erase all geographical and landscape features within the proximity of Beichuan High School so that people can't recognise it and to build a museum on top of it is extremely cruel and inhumane," Tan said.
"There are still more than 400 kids that have yet to be dug out from the site. How can you change everything and build a museum on top of it to glorify the party's leadership?"
The repeated calls to launch an official investigation into the schoolhouses’ safety and to process lawsuits filed to sue school heads and contractors have all been ignored, the parents say.
Bereaved parents are taken away by authorities as they demand an explanation from the government over their children’s deaths.
The civilian investigation Tan led found that the quake damaged about 7,000 schools across Sichuan. Of those, 2,000 were severely damaged. Twenty of them were thought to have been shoddily built, according to the probe.
Tan said it made no sense for the government to invest heavily to crack down on protesting parents rather than to address their needs for a fair investigation and hold responsible those at fault.
"Those who persist in seeking justice are treated like criminals," he said. "This is the biggest post-disaster catastrophe, and that’s why many of them are unable to move on from the pain."
We have been met with nothing but cruelty. If the government had been more humane towards us, it might have been easier for us to move on ‒ A grieving father
Beichuan’s bereaved parents say requests to bury their children’s cremated remains and to set up a communal tombstone nearer to their homes have also been denied.
A 52-year-old father who lost his 18-year-old son at the school said he would not give up fighting for his son to be remembered until the day he dies.
"For the past 10 years, we have been met with nothing but cruelty. If the government had been more humane towards us, it might have been easier for us to move on," said the man, who asked not to be named for fear of falling afoul of authorities.
Sang, the pig farmer from Mianzhu, said that with the earthquake’s 10th anniversary approaching, local officials recently warned him against speaking to the media.
"I was told I would have to pay the price for what I’ve done," he said. "Well, let the world know how much of a price we have paid in our search for justice."
But not every bereaved parent is as steadfast as Sang.
Zhang Jing, a Beichuan mother who lost her three-year-old daughter when the girl’s kindergarten building was crushed under the crumbling school next door, recently trashed all her petition materials. The materials included long lists of victims and pieces of evidence collected to prove that the schoolhouses had been poorly constructed.
"The government will never give us justice so I have no use for these materials any more," she said.
Still, Tan is determined to continue helping those who press on for justice.
"We can't give up or there will be nothing left but for despair. Achievement comes from accumulated progression, even at its tiniest. This is about basic morality and the human conscience," he said.
"What we are doing now has nothing to do with state subversion. What is real subversion is [the government] politicising everything rather than upholding social and judicial justice and equality.
Of the nearly 70,000 lives lost in the Sichuan disaster, up to 30,000 of them could have been saved had the region had an early warning system, according to Chinese government-backed earthquake research centre Institute of Care-Life.
Since then, China has invested heavily into studying earthquakes and preventing such a large-scale disaster from happening again.
After the 2008 quake, the national earthquake administration injected 2 billion yuan (US$300 million) into developing an early warning and quick intensity reporting system to detects and alert people to quakes seconds before they strike.
When major quakes struck Sichuan again in 2013 and 2017, the system's emergency mechanisms kicked in effectively and efficiently, saving precious lives and minimising damage in the two subsequent disasters.
After the magnitude-8 Yaan earthquake in 2013, relief teams gained access to the epicentre in Lushan county within nine hours ‒ compared with the three full days they took to enter Yingxiu, the epicentre of the Wenchuan quake, five years earlier. Access to major roads were restored within three days after the Yaan quake, compared with 14 days after Wenchuan, according to researchers affiliated with the General Hospital of the Chinese armed police forces.
In 2017, residents across Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces were warned between five to 71 seconds before the magnitude-7 earthquake struck Jiuzhaigou in the Ngawa prefecture, home to many ethnic Tibetans in northern Sichuan. Delivered via mobile phones, social media and official terminals, the alerts gave people vital time to seek cover.
The system – similar to ones used in quake-prone countries like Japan, Mexico and the United States – employs a network of seismographs to detect fast-moving P-waves created by an earthquake, ahead of slower but more dangerous S-waves. China aims to have 15,000 such monitoring stations across the country by 2020.
In the provincial capital of Chengdu, an emergency evacuation plan was formulated in the event of another major disaster.
All buildings in the city were also evaluated for safety, with public buildings required to be resistant to earthquakes one degree higher than the area's seismic intensity, according to Zeng Jiuli, president and senior engineer at the Chengdu Institute of Planning and Design.
"We took data from the China Earthquake Administration – for example, where the earthquake fault lines lie – and have done better urban planning with this information, avoiding construction in unsafe areas," she said.
China also sought to learn how to better manage the fallout after earthquakes strike.
The government strengthened its coordination of rescue and relief forces, to streamline the process of sending military and volunteer forces into disaster areas, said Cao Shuang, head of the Sichuan provincial land and resources department.
This also involved better communication with the public, including timely official briefings and the publication of information online, he said. Sichuan government officials held a press conference four hours after the 2013 earthquake struck, compared to taking over a day after the Wenchuan quake to hold its first briefing.
To better understand the risks, China also established its first institute for disaster management and reconstruction was set up in May 2013, a collaboration between Sichuan University and Hong Kong Polytechnic University. The institute has laboratories dedicated to physical and occupational therapy, prosthetics and orthotics, and disaster nursing, as well as an information resource centre to provide public education.
It is also home to a mobile hospital that can be packed up and moved quickly to a disaster zone by plane within 48 to 72 hours, according to Jin Xiaodong from the West China Hospital of Sichuan University. The mobile hospital tents include portable medical equipment, such as X-ray machines that can be folded and reassembled.
Pupils take part in earthquake drills to mark the National Day for Disasters Prevention and Mitigation, which falls on May 12, the anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake.
The mobile hospital is a significant training base for emergency professionals, said Di Baofeng, associate dean of the disaster management institute.
"Our institute is very multidisciplinary … Through data and simulations, we are able to better understand which areas are at greater risk of disaster, which supports urban planning," he said. "Our disaster education for young people has also elevated their understanding of disasters and their ability to save themselves in the event of one."
In the wake of the 2008 quake, the Chinese government launched a national network for disaster prevention awareness. Measures included adding relevant information into school textbooks and designating May 12 as "Disaster Prevention and Reduction Day" from 2009.
The South China Morning Post's reporters were among the first to arrive at the devastated region of Sichuan, here's a sample of our coverage from 10 years ago.