Letter from China

May 17, 2008

I'm writing on May 13 at 5:19am from the city of Wanzhou, Chongqing Municipality, China. I've just re-entered my apartment after the latest aftershock sent everyone onto the streets once more. It's been a long 15 hours since the initial earthquake yesterday afternoon that so devastated Wenchuan and surrounds, such as the beautiful city of Chengdu. At this moment, my understanding of the scope of this disaster is only what I have been able to garner from international news websites and secondhand reports from my Chinese friends.

Though the quake and aftershocks are unmistakable, the only visible signs of trouble in Wanzhou are the hundreds of thousands of people crowding into squares and along the banks of the Yangtze River seeking refuge from the modern office towers and apartment blocks that symbolise China's rapid growth and increasing prosperity. The people of Wanzhou are lucky, but it is telling that the only report of damage that I have heard, so far, is a building at a school nearby that lost its structural integrity and was declared unsafe. It seems that China's school children are big victims of this disaster.

About an hour's drive from Wanzhou in the agricultural town of Liangping, there are reports of two primary schools collapsing, resulting in the deaths of five students with another 100 injured. In Deyang, I hear that buildings at five schools have collapsed. At one school in Dujiangyan, 420 grade eight and nine students are buried after their building crumbled. Now, around 10000 are thought to have been killed nationwide.

China's rapid growth has seen extraordinary development, greater prosperity for many and great fortunes for a few. Mobile phones, MP4 players, large TV's and a family car have become the norm. Grand multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects and of course the preparations for this year's Olympics in Beijing are designed to prove to the world that China is modern, dynamic and able to achieve anything it desires. All this belies an ever-decreasing public expenditure on education, healthcare and social welfare.

No doubt the Chinese government will not want to be cast in the same light as Myanmar and will react with speed and tenacity. I can only hope that this experience will make China step back from its obsession with hosting a successful Olympics and re-focus it on a path to development which prioritises human values over big business.

Darcy Morissey, Brisbane resident, living and working in China

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