China ignored quake warnings

Mianzhu, China- Chinese officials ignored warnings from five eminent seismologists that a strong earthquake would strike the mountainous province of Sichuan this year, including one forecast that almost exactly predicted the date of the tremor that killed more than 68,000 people.
The government appeared to be trying to suppress evidence of the warnings last week and none of the seismologists could be traced for an interview.
News of the warnings, disclosed on a Chinese scientist’s blog, has created a storm of criticism on the internet and deepened the rage of bereaved parents in ruined towns such as Mianzhu, where schools had collapsed on their pupils.
Sichuan journalists even dared to question the head of the State Earthquake Bureau. They demanded to know if it was true that the forecasts were dismissed because officials did not want anything to disturb preparations for the Olympic torch relay to pass through this month.
The journalists got no answer and there has since been little mention of the warnings in the official media; but there is no doubt that the documents cited are authentic.
The first forecast came in a highly technical article published by four seismologists in September 2006 in China’s Journal of Catastrophology.
The four, Long Xiaoxia, Yan Junping, Sun Hu and Wang Zuzheng, calculated that stress factors along the Sichuan-Tibet tectonic fault indicated that a quake measuring above 6.7 on the Richter scale would strike this year. They suggested the government should set up emergency headquarters and organise local disaster teams to train city dwellers and farmers in how to protect themselves.
There is no evidence anything was done. But the seismologists were not available to explain why. “You’re a journalist?” said an official at their university, contacted by telephone. “They are not supposed to accept any interviews, so just give up the idea.”
The fifth expert to issue a warning is said to be in seclusion, afflicted by heartache over the loss of so many children. Geng Qingguo, a renowned seismologist, had come out of retirement to present his dire predictions to a meeting of specialists on April 26 and 27.
Geng outlined his calculations that an earthquake of more than 7 on the Richter scale would occur along the boundaries of Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces. He even predicted that the most likely date would be within 10 days of May 8.
The scientist dispatched a copy of his findings to the State Earthquake Bureau in Beijing on April 30. Once again, nothing seems to have been done.
The quake struck with a Richter scale force of 7.9 on May 12.
None of this would be known but for the fact that one of Geng’s colleagues, Li Shihui of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, disclosed the whole story in his blog after the earthquake.
“His opinion was not accepted by the State Earthquake Bureau,” Li wrote, “and when he heard of the Sichuan earthquake he tried to cry, yet no tears would come, so heavy was his heart.”
Neither Li nor Geng is now available for comment, as the public anger intensifies. Access to the blog has been blocked by web censors.
“Yes, Dr Li used to be a researcher in our laboratory,” confirmed a woman official at the academy. “After the earthquake he published some articles that caused a big argument. But he has retired and we do not have his phone number. That is all I can tell you.”
Li’s rapid retirement appears to have come after the publication of an article detailing his blog and both sets of warnings by a veteran journalist, Ching Cheong, the chief China correspondent for The Straits Times of Singapore. “We do not know why the authorities chose not to act,” said Ching. “Some attributed it to the Olympics frenzy.”
Ching’s story was translated into Chinese and circulated on the internet, setting off a fire-storm of abuse from citizens.
Mianzhu is populated by thousands of people living in tents among the ruins of its buildings. “A hundred people died in there,” said a local woman, Zhang Bing, 23, pointing to a bulldozer that gnawed at the rubble of a supermarket on the main square, where several bodies still lay entombed.
On one level the city of 500,000 exemplified the virtuous storyline that now appears mandatory for the state media. Nobody sat listless or idle in Mianzhu. Its citizens manifested the entrepreneurial resilience of the Chinese people. Shopkeepers busily erected stalls to peddle wares hauled from their wrecked premises. Families organised themselves to keep tents clean and neat.
Corporate China has piled in to the rescue alongside the state. China Mobile set up relay dishes and sold cheap mobile phones. Banks dispensed cash. China Post was even sorting the mail at an improvised outdoor centre.
On the outskirts of town, at least 20,000 souls congregated in a tent camp supervised by the People’s Liberation Army. It included an outdoor hospital where doctors and nurses continue to toil over broken bones and sickly old folk.
However, on another level Mianzhu could become a barometer of public opinion, as the initial shock or relief give way to more complex feelings.
Jiang, the local party secretary, explained the risks in a frank interview with China’s Nanfang Weekend newspaper. “At first I relied on my rank as party secretary to request those parents not to go to the streets with their protests,” he said. “But they turned a deaf ear to me and even the police couldn’t stop them.
“So I got on my knees, not because I was ashamed but because I was thinking of the hundreds of thousands of people in this city who are homeless, short of clothes and food, so that any protest like this could cause mass unrest. That’s been my biggest worry since the earthquake.”
Undaunted, the parents are discussing a march to Chengdu, the provincial capital. They have been banned from travelling on buses by the party secretary. One of them, Li Yan, said: “He’s always lied to us and tried to cover up the real situation.”
The Times Online, UK, June 1, 2008

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