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Blogging Beijing

The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.

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May 15, 2008 5:46 PM

China shaken - reactions from Beijing

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Beijing quivered. Sichuan collapsed.

A powerful earthquake - registering 7.8 by the Richter scale - struck western China's Sichuan province Monday. Nearly 20,000 people have died; at least 40,000 remain buried; thousands more are missing.

The tremor ripped through roofs, wrecked factories, splintered dams and brought buildings down. In the city of Shifang, two chemical plants crumbled, leaking liquid ammonia. In Dujiangyan city, several schools fell. Hundreds of students were killed.

High-rises swayed here in the capital, 930 miles northwest of the earthquake's epicenter - a rugged country, Wenchuan. Sichuan's rumble triggered a smaller earthquake near Beijing, registering 3.9 by the Richter scale. Few Beijingers noticed, though white-collar workers evacuated a grove of skyscrapers downtown.

But word spread quickly - via text and instant message, flitting between cell phones and cell phone towers. Television sets and radios blared. "Thousands of Chinese troops deployed west." "Premier Wen Jiaobao arrives on the scene."

Beijingers are fond of figures, obsessed with numbers. This year's Olympic Games will begin at 8:08am on August 8 - that's 8/8/08. Days after the earthquake, a grislier statistic commands the city's attention - everyone knows the death toll will continue to rise.

The earthquake has dominated newspaper headlines in Beijing, as in Seattle.

Television coverage of the relief effort in Sichuan, aboard a Beijing bus.

A series of tragedies have shaken China this year. Freak snowstorms startled Spring Festival travelers in February, damaging 602,000 houses, stranding 600,000 migrant workers, leaving hundreds dead. A month later, Tibetan protestors/rioters set fire to Lhasa.

European activists hounded China's Olympic torch relay in April. This month, 70-plus were killed in a train crash between Beijing and the Yellow Sea. Hand Foot & Mouth disease, an intestinal virus, has claimed scores of Chinese children.

People here, however, seem confident that China will emerge from the rubble to host a memorable 2008 Games.

"It is horrible," said a construction worker from Hebei province, perched on a mud-caked folding chair eating lunch. "Our work-unit has already pitched in - we've collected money for the relief effort. Fortunately, we trust our government. As for hosting the Olympics, China will succeed."

"We're all very sad," remarked a young woman from Inner Mongolia, who attends Beijing's Central University of Nationalities. "I have Sichuanese friends - none from Wenchuan. Their families are okay. China has endured many hardships in 2008. Even so, this earthquake won't affect the Olympics. We are determined."

"We're very upset," a waitress explained. "It's hard to comprehend - so many people have died."

Students at Beijing's Central University for Nationalities collect earthquake relief donations.

Photographs from and well-wishes for Sichuan's disaster zone displayed on campus at the Central University for Nationalities.

Road-blocking landslides, caused by the earthquake and subsequent downpours, have hindered relief efforts in mountainous Sichuan. Soldiers and rescue workers didn't penetrate Wenchuan until Wednesday.

Running food, medicine, tents and blankets down the county's muddy, winding roads has proven difficult. As of Thursday night (Thursday morning in Seattle), 130,000 soldiers and police, aided by 150 military helicopters had been deployed.

"I'm from Sichuan," said a man in Beijing, sitting concernedly on the curb inspecting a newspaper. "My hometown is far from the earthquake's epicenter. No one in my family was killed or hurt.

"I've just been reading," he added, nodding to his newspaper - a grief-stricken mother photographed on its front page. "It's so sad. At least China can handle this sort of disaster now - it's been 30 years since gaige kaifang (Deng Xiaoping's 'reform and opening.')

On the outskirts of Beijing, a man from Henan province leaned against an outdoor pool table.

"Sichuan has a whole lot of people. China has a whole lot people," he said. "Sichuan is like this pool table, and Wenchuan - it's just one pocket. This earthquake is a relatively small thing."

"We have a few kids from Sichuan," said an English teacher from Anhui province who works at one of Beijing's 'migrant schools' - fringe institutions that enroll children belonging to un-registered workers. "They've tried calling home...nothing."

"Yes, we left family back home," a Sichuanese migrant to Beijing said. "We've heard from them. They're alive. But they're scared. They've been sleeping outside in the rain."

A Beijing policeman from Yunnan province is worried about his former work-mate and friend.

"He's in Chengdu," the policeman said. "I've tried calling him. My calls won't go through. We've been out of touch for a while. Still, I want to know he's safe."

Students wash their hands before eating lunch at an elementary school in Beijing (no students attending the school photographed have caught Hand Foot & Mouth disease).

A poster encourages students to keep their hands, feet and mouths clean.

According to China-hand Peter Hessler, a New Yorker correspondent, many Chinese associate major earthquakes with political events. Monday's disaster is the largest here since 1976, when an earthquake in eastern China killed 240,000 people. Mao Zedong died the same year, and with him the Cultural Revolution.

This summer, Beijing will host the 2008 Olympics - China's first.

"It's a bad-luck year, a mouse year," said the English teacher (referring to the Chinese zodiac). "First, the snow. Then the violence in Tibet. Many children have died from Hand Foot & Mouth disease in Anhui."

"There's no relationship between this earthquake and the Games," an elderly man washing his hair outside answered angrily. "No relationship."

"There's been a lot of trouble in 2008," said a 40-year old migrant worker from Zhejiang province. "It's got nothing to do with the Olympics, though. That's pure superstition. Earthquakes are completely natural."

A pair of students fundraising for earthquake relief inside the Central University for Nationalities agreed.

"A natural disaster is a natural disaster - that's all," one said. "An earthquake, people don't control. The Olympics, people control."

China has scaled back its domestic torch relay, set to visit Sichuan in July. Yesterday in Ruijin, Jiangxi province, torchbearers and supporters observed a moment of silence in honor of the earthquake's victims. The International Olympic Committee has donated US$1 million to the relief effort.

"Since the earthquake, all I've done besides work is watch the news," said a teacher from the Central University for Nationalities. "There are so many people still trapped. I've donated clothes and money."

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