Chinese Premier Visits Tibetan Quake Survivors
Published: April 16, 2010
JIEGU, China — Prime Minister Wen Jiabao spent Friday in the Tibetan high country, comforting survivors of this week’s devastating earthquake in a prominent display of concern by the country’s Han leadership for one of China’s most troubled ethnic minorities.
“No matter whether you are Tibetans or Hans, you are all in one family,” Mr. Wen said during a visit to an orphanage in Yushu Prefecture, a remote area of western China to which he had raced on Thursday after canceling a trip to Indonesia, state news media reported. President Hu Jintao also changed his plans after the quake, cutting short a trip to Brazil.
The government’s efforts will be closely watched. Although the scope of destruction does not compare with the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province, which killed about 87,000 people, the disaster in Qinghai Province presents a delicate political challenge.
The government raised the official death toll of this week’s quake to 1,144, from 791 earlier in the day, with many thousands more injured and suffering in the freezing cold at 13,000 feet. Most of those affected are ethnic Tibetans, whose relations with the Chinese government have never been easy.
In 2008, those tensions flared in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, during deadly rioting that pitted local residents against ethnic Han migrants. Since then, sporadic unrest and crackdowns have occurred across Tibetan areas of the country, Qinghai included, although Jiegu has been relatively quiet.
At a news conference on Friday in Beijing, government experts seemed at pains to stress that the distribution of relief supplies had been unaffected by ethnic considerations, and that supplies had been handed out solely on the basis of need.
But there were obvious tensions in the earthquake zone. Many monks said that the army and the police had prevented them from searching for survivors in the first few days after the quake and that the emergency teams that came from other parts of the country worked with a lack of urgency. “We have been digging with our bare hands to save lives,” said Tsewang, a 21-year-old monk who, like some Tibetans, uses only one name. “We are very disappointed in them.”
For now, people here seem most concerned with survival or recovering loved ones lost beneath the ruins that dot the city. After a day of rescue efforts led by shovel-wielding monks, hundreds of rescuers with heavy machinery began arriving Thursday. They clambered over the remnants of schools, hotels and mud-brick homes looking for signs that some of the hundreds of people still missing might be alive.
But with time passing and nightfall bringing freezing temperatures, the chances of survival seemed to be dimming, and bodies, wrapped in colorful shrouds, piled up in the city.
Ger Lai Tan Zeng, a 20-year-old Buddhist monk, was the recorder of the dead, his graceful Tibetan script filling an old datebook. By Friday morning, he estimated that there were 900 bodies spread across the brightly painted pavilion that normally functioned as a seating area for the monks at his monastery. “We’ve been too busy tending the living to count the dead,” he said.
In one piece of good news, two people, including a 13-year-old girl, were pulled from a toppled three-story hotel here on Friday, witnesses said.
Relief efforts picked up the pace, with caravans of bottled water and instant noodles arriving, much of it transported from the provincial capital 12 hours away. With desperation mounting among the survivors, the provisions seemed to arrive just in time.
Still, there were some strained moments. Outside the toppled gate of the municipal government headquarters, several hundred hungry people tried to push their way through a cordon of riot police officers, who tried to assure them that there were tents and food for all. As the crowd’s anger reached a boiling point, the police gave up and allowed them to stream past.
Conditions remain dire. There is no running water or electricity. Thousands of people are living outdoors; few buildings escaped damage, and the wood-and-mud structures that housed many of the city’s nearly 100,000 residents were particularly vulnerable.
Several school buildings in town pancaked during the earthquake, once again raising questions about substandard construction. No one seemed to know how many schoolchildren might have died, but there were suggestions that the numbers could reach into the hundreds.
At the Yushu Ethnic Minority Vocational School, where a section of the girls’ dormitory turned into rubble, teachers said more than 200 students might have been lost. Cheng Guangming, the assistant principal, said he and others pulled out five students, but two later died. “We could only save three,” he said, his voice weary after spending three days watching workers poke at the remains of the three-story building.
He said the dorm, built 15 years ago, was structurally deficient, but he was reluctant to assign blame. “At the time, everything was built from mud, so we thought it was modern construction,” he said.
Most of the students came from far-flung corners of the county, a wild region thinly populated by nomads and farmers who scrimp to send their children to school in the city.
The girls had just finished their morning calisthenics and were washing up or eating breakfast when the quake struck at 7:49 a.m. “A few minutes earlier, and they still would have been outside and alive,” said Luo Na, a teacher.
All across the city, there were tales of lives saved and lost. He Jie, 23, said a friend and his wife kept calling him from their hair salon in what had been the ground floor of a hotel. On Thursday, however, a fire erupted inside the rubble, probably a crushed gas canister, he said, and by the time rescuers found the couple, they were dead, their charred bodies in an embrace.
But in another section of the same ruined building, there were signs of life. Just after daybreak on Friday, a man said he heard the voices of friends from deep inside the debris. A crowd gathered to watch while rescue workers with listening devices, sniffer dogs and chain saws picked at the pile. By evening, their work was still not done.
Halfway up the dusky mountain that overlooks the city, the monks of Jyegu monastery were busy praying for the dead, including eight of their own. The bodies arrived in the trunks of cars, or in one case by the dozens on two flatbed trucks. With 500 monks, the monastery is one of the most cherished in the region, and many residents dropped off bodies so prayers could be said for the required three days of mourning.
Under normal circumstances, many of the dead would be given sky burials, the traditional Tibetan ritual in which vultures consume the bodies. But Pu Be, the monastery’s chief lama, said the sheer number of corpses made such a ceremony impossible. Instead, he said, there would be a mass cremation on Saturday.
“This is the unfortunate reality of our situation,” he said.
A few mourners, however, were determined to give their relatives traditional burials. Qi Min pulled up on a motorcycle to claim the body of his older brother. A group of robed monks gently lashed the body, bent at the waist, to the back of the motorcycle. Then, Mr. Qi drove off.