A tale of two disasters: China's rescue mission shames Burma

While the Burmese generals prevent aid from reaching the cyclone victims, the Chinese government is quick to show its new openness. Clifford Coonan reports from Sichuan province

An aftershock measuring 6.1 on the Richter scale shook Sichuan province last night, six days after China's worst earthquake in more than half a century killed at least 50,000 people in the mountainous region. In Chengdu, the provincial capital, people who fled into the darkened streets found themselves under assault by gale-force winds.

Earlier in the day more than a million people were hurriedly evacuated from Qingchuan, near the epicentre of the 7.9-magnitude quake on Monday. A lake had risen dangerously, threatening to burst its banks, drown anyone still alive under the ruins and halt a relief effort that had barely got started. The waters later receded, but it seemed that Sichuan was suffering a Biblical series of perils.

The region's plight has been broadcast all across China and the world, and the contrast with Burma is becoming starker every day. It is feared that hundreds of thousands of Burmese could die in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis as Than Shwe's military junta bars foreign aid and declares the relief operation over. Even though the aim of both regimes is the same – to stay in power – the reaction of China's leadership shows how far the country has developed in the past 30 years – to be precise, since the 1976 earthquake in the north-eastern city of Tangshan, which killed up to 300,000 people.

Although Tangshan was China's, and the modern world's, worst earthquake, the Communist Party chose to keep the story quiet to avoid unrest. But the China that is bearing witness to the Sichuan quake is very different from that of the Cultural Revolution. A ban on reporting disasters in state media was lifted a couple of years ago, and there has been round-the-clock coverage of the quake on CCTV, China's state-owned television channel, as well as other media.

In the worst-hit cities, such as Beichuan, Hanwang and Mianzhu, thousands of rescuers continue to work, mainly by hand. Cranes and heavy machinery are in desperately short supply, and time is running out for anyone trapped alive in the rubble. But there are still miraculous discoveries: a German tourist was pulled out alive in Wenchuan after being buried for 114 hours, and Xinhua news agency said 33 people were dug out of the ruins in Beichuan. One young man was rescued after being buried for 104 hours, and troops evacuated 18 scientists trapped in a forest in Mianzhu.

The government has raised the official death toll to 22,000, but said the figure could rise above 50,000. Tens of thousands are still thought to be buried in collapsed buildings, rescuers believe, and about 4.8 million people have lost their homes in Sichuan, which is around the same size as Spain. The government has deployed more than 130,000 soldiers and relief workers and 110 helicopters in operations to find as many as 30,000 people still buried and injured in the province; 28,000 people have been rescued so far.

At a football stadium in Guangyan City, hundreds of tents have been set up for survivors. "We were at home in Beichuan when the earthquake shook the house," said Zhao Li, a farmer. "Everything collapsed. We had to crawl out over dead bodies. We were very scared and we had to use our instincts to get out. We did all we could do to get out. My 70-year-old mother carried my niece, who is seven months pregnant, out of the house all by herself."

The Guangyan City refugee camp is well organised and seems to be well supplied. "We've prepared tents, water, pillows and anything else the refugees need. The food supply has been good," said Wen Zhugang, a local government official.

Relief material is coming in at a fast pace. The response to the disaster has also included some foreign input, with teams from Japan, Russia and Singapore flying in to help. Supplies such as tents, stretchers and clothes are also being brought in from France, Spain and the Philippines, as well as millions of pounds in financial aid. This is unprecedented for China, normally fiercely nationalistic and obsessed with sovereignty issues. Its reluctance to lobby for change in other countries, such as Burma and Sudan, reflects its fear of setting a precedent for interference in its own affairs.

President Hu Jintao has been at the head of a succession of visits to Sichuan, where he said: "Although the time for the best chance of rescue, the first 72 hours after an earthquake, has passed, saving lives remains the top priority of our work." Premier Wen Jiabao has been constantly on TV, visiting survivors and encouraging the rescuers to work ever harder. Calling the quake "the biggest and most destructive" since before the Communist revolution of 1949, he said the quick response had helped to reduce casualties.

Typical of volunteer rescuers was a construction worker surnamed Tang, who comes from Zhongjiang County, where just a couple of buildings collapsed. "I want to save people," he said. "I'm a construction worker, so I can make a contribution, and use my strength to help the rescue effort. I was in Hanwang this morning and I dug out three bodies. I'm not a party member, but I want to help my country. I'm going to the disaster area this afternoon again, to Beichuan or Wenchuan. I can help."

As he spoke, a couple with a baby approached Mr Tang. "My relatives are buried. You have to help me," the woman said. "They are in the mountains, close to Mianzhu. It's hard to get to, but we can show you. There are many bodies there. We're worried about disease." Calming the near-hysterical woman, Mr Tang told her: "Take it easy, people, we will help you. Communists will come and dig them out."

The government is keen to be seen to be doing all it can to help, because the party needs to keep its firm grip on power by maintaining popular support. It has overseen a remarkable upswing in the economy and living standards, and is also trying to learn flexibility and to stamp out corruption.

But how the authorities will deal with rising anger over the many public buildings that collapsed during the disaster, particularly the dozens of schools that fell, crushing thousands of children, is another thing. Rumours have spread fast that officials were bribed to overlook shoddy construction practices.

Coverage of the quake aroused international sympathy for China as the Beijing Olympics approach, dispelling some of the sour mood created by Beijing's crackdown on anti-Chinese protests in Tibet in March. But old attitudes still surface: I was told to get government permission before talking to people in a relief camp, reminiscent of the days before restrictions on foreign journalists' movements were lifted.

But the country has more important issues to deal with. According to Save the Children, China has been inundated with offers to adopt newly orphaned children in the past few days, leading to widespread panic among parents desperately trying to find their surviving children. Thousands of poor migrant workers, forced to work hundred of miles away from their rural homes in China's industrial cities, have no idea whether their children are dead, and aid workers are hurrying to set up centres where children can be looked after until they are traced.

That is on top of the massive problem of homelessness. In the Guangyan City football stadium, Zhao Li said: "We came here from Beichuan. The rescue team sent us to Mianyang refugee camp initially and now we've moved here. We're looking for some good friends who are missing. My biggest hope for the future is to find a place to live for me and my parents. We want a house to live in."

While she was doing her best to remain positive, others were still traumatised. "Future plans? asked Yang Mingxing. "Are you joking?" He gave a hollow laugh and got off the tarpaulin he was sitting on to show that all he had was a truck and the clothes on his back. His mother-in-law and his aunt died in the quake, and everything else had gone.

"I've got nothing in my pockets. They're empty, look," said the 39-year-old farmer from Hanwang. He slapped the ground to show what had happened to his house. "I have no plans for the future. I just want to get enough food. I just want me and my family to live. That's my plan.

"If I could show you my town, what's left of it, you'd see the meaning of life. There are so many bodies, so many injuries. This is a good place, this camp, very organised. My hometown is a disaster. There is no water, no electricity, and there is going to be a flood, too, for sure."

The farmer said some of his friends had stayed in the disaster zone because their houses were not completely destroyed, or to recover the bodies of relatives and friends. "But we got out – life is everything."

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