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China opens up to give quake survivors a fighting chance; CHINA EARTHQUAKE.

WHEN natural disasters strike on the other side of the world, it's often the scale of the devastation that proves most difficult for us in the West to grasp.

The earthquake that struck Sichuan province in China on Monday has killed at least 22,000 people - the equivalent of a whole medium-sized town such as Pontypridd, or Bangor and Caernarfon combined.

Chinese officials now estimate the number of homeless people will be more than five million, roughly the entire population of Scotland.

The area affected is bigger than Belgium.

Both the death toll and the number of homeless are likely to rise - not least because parts of Sichuan province are extremely remote - and the TV images of parents standing outside the rubble of schools, hoping that their children will be pulled out alive, have touched millions around the world.

According to Britain's Department for International Development, 900 children were buried in one school alone which collapsed after the quake.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent said yesterday that more than 13,000 people had been pulled from the rubble, but a further 12,000 were still trapped.

The scale of the devastation and the despair is difficult to take in.

The UK Government has committed pounds 1m for relief efforts, money that is being channeled via charities on the ground. The Chinese Government is accepting foreign aid, and inevitably comparisons are being drawn with the attitude of the Burmese military junta to cyclone Nargis. In Burma 78,000 are dead and foreign aid workers are not being allowed in.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao the visited the affected region yesterday and said: "Saving lives is still our top priority, as long as hope of survival still exists."

China, still a communist country despite decades of economic liberalisation, was initially reluctant to accept foreign expertise, but quickly relented, with Japanese and Russian experts among those working on the relief effort.

It's easy to forget that this is the first time China has accepted outside professionals for domestic disaster relief.

The Chinese Government itself is spending pounds 380mon the aid and rescue effort.

The contrast with Burma couldn't be greater, but it wasn't always this way. In 1976, a momentous year in Chinese history, the Tangshan earthquake killed 242,400 people - according to official figures. The real death toll was probably at least three times higher, making it the deadliest earthquake of the 20th century.

On that occasion the Chinese government refused to accept help from the UN, preferring to use its own troops to deal with the aftermath. The earthquake struck shortly after the death of Mao Tse-Tung, and came at the end of the years of upheaval caused by Mao's Cultural Revolution. Small wonder the Chinese still refer to the "curse of 1976".

According to Oxfam, one of the challenges facing aid agencies this time around is reaching the remoter areas of the province. Chengdu, the main city in Sichuan, is 1,200 miles from Beijing, and access to more rural parts of the area is difficult.

John Sayer, of Oxfam Hong Kong, said: "Oxfam is targeting remote areas that are not being covered by the government or other relief efforts.

"This is Oxfam's normal practice in an emergency. We are communicating closely with government units in Sichuan and Gansu to make sure we do not duplicate their efforts, and to use our resources effectively."

Meanwhile the disaster has prompted a rare exercise in government openness, with officials holding a "conversation" with people on an official website.

Thousands have asked why so many schools seem to have collapsed in the earthquake. Officials have promised to punish anyone responsible for shoddy construction, but the publication of angry reactions to that promise would have been unthinkable in 1976.

Meanwhile the rescue effort goes on. Chinese state television has shown pictures of a five-year old boy pulled from the rubble of a school.

In the face of such a disaster on such a vast scale, hope comes from the individual stories of heroism and survival.


HOPE AND DESPAIR: A trapped youth from Beichuan middle school waits for rescuers, top, and a man cries while sitting among debris in Hongguang village in Qingchuan County, above; SORROW: A woman cries as the body of her husband is found under the rubble of a collapsed apartment house in Beichuan county, Mianyang city, Sichuan province; HELPING HANDS: Rescuers carry an injured woman out of the rubble in Beichuan County in south-west China's Sichuan Province
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:May 17, 2008
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