As the first anniversary approaches of the earthquake that killed an estimated 87,000 in Sichuan, the aftermath is exposing some of the better, and some of the worse, aspects of today's China. On the plus side, the provincial authorities have just released an official figure for the number of children killed when their schools collapsed. That they have finally produced a figure is a good sign from officials whose default position is still secrecy. On the minus side, however, the number given – at 5,335 – is far lower than many believe and was immediately called into question by parents of those who died.
Such is the mixed legacy of this disaster. And the numbers are not all that leaves a contradictory impression. Reporting today from what remains of the town of Beichuan, which was near the epicentre, our correspondent contrasts the destruction and panic he observed a year ago with the visible efforts made to clear and rebuild. Some progress has clearly relied on individual initiative, where new houses have been built from scratch. A staggering three million people – almost half of those made homeless – have been provided with reasonably sturdy prefab housing, but as many again are still in tents or very flimsy accommodation. And for those who have stayed, inevitably, employment is in short supply.
Among the big decisions taken and acted upon is acceptance that Beichuan must be re-sited. It is being rebuilt beside the next settlement. While much of the work has not advanced beyond old-fashioned communist invocations, a monument and museum are ready for the anniversary. At least this is not a disaster that is being written out of China's history. Beichuan is able to mourn its past, while also looking to the future.
Still, the ambiguities persist. Our correspondent was one of several people detained earlier this week for trying to talk to the parents campaigning for an investigation into why so many schools collapsed. Their suspicion is that money intended for expensive earthquake-proofing was diverted into the pockets of officials and contractors, while the adjacent government buildings were reinforced as prescribed.
This remains no less sensitive a subject one year on than it did when the first complaints were made, and the campaigners are regularly harassed by the authorities. As so often when disaster strikes a society where power is a monopoly and transparency is lacking, judgements are as much about politics as building standards. Yet the fact the parents have organised themselves and are making their voice heard, albeit with great difficulty, is an advance. A tender shoot of civil society has sprouted from the rubble.