May 19, 2008
A powerful earthquake hit the western Chinese province of Sichuan on May 14. The Chinese government estimates that the final death toll may reach 50,000. Over 160,000 have been injured.
But the destruction in Sichuan was not evenly distributed. In cities like Chengdu, where wealth is centered, shiny new office towers and hotels were still standing the day after the earthquake. But in poorer small cities and rural towns and villages, buildings everywhere were reduced to rubble – even in areas farther from the center of the quake than Chengdu.
Principles for building structures to more strongly withstand earthquakes are well understood at this point, and China applies them; but not equally. Even though the official country-wide building code requires all buildings to be built to withstand an earthquake of this magnitude, the code is enforced very differently in poor areas than in wealthy cities. In the poor areas, cheaply-made concrete and brick mortar turned to dust in the earthquake, and buildings came tumbling down.
Worst hit were schools and health centers in these areas. Throughout Sichuan, at least nine schools and two hospitals collapsed – even when multi-story buildings next to them remained standing. Thousands of school children were trapped and killed beneath the collapsed school buildings.
Almost half of China’s population – over 550 million people – are living in poverty, surviving on less than a dollar a day. Sixty to seventy% of the population still lives in rural areas like Sichuan – and these areas remain the most poor and destitute in the country.
Until the 1980s, China’s economy was centrally organized and controlled by its government. And local expenses were paid centrally.
But the Chinese government has opened its economy more and more to foreign investment, allowing more and more private corporations to set up shop; it also pushed more of the rural population off the land to supply labor for these factories; towns and cities grew rapidly in formerly rural areas – and housing and schools were built rapidly, and cheaply, for them. The workers have been paid very little, and extremely substandard homes, schools and hospitals were built for them. Meanwhile, a very small minority of the Chinese population has grown very rich. In 2000, over 40% of the bank deposits were owned by only five% of the population; and it’s only gotten worse since then.
In addition, tax collection was decentralized twenty years ago, leaving schools and health centers locally financed. Of course, this means that poor areas HAD no money, and schools and hospitals there have been constructed in a shoddy fashion, with poor materials. Making it worse, local government bureaucrats have pocketed much of the collected taxes, leaving little to meet the needs of the local populations.
In this society, natural disasters don’t hit everyone equally. The earthquake may have hit the whole province of Sichuan, but most of those who died were victims not of the quake, but of the disgusting disparity in wealth that allowed only a few to hoard well-made buildings for themselves.