A new 400,000-sq-m residential area in Beichuan county nears completion, thanks to help from the Shandong provincial government. [China Daily]
Sichuan, the province most ravaged by the 2008 disaster, will complete more than 90 percent of its projects this year, said governor Jiang Jufeng. Earlier this month, the provincial government also vowed to finish construction of homes in rural areas before the Spring Festival, which this year falls on Feb 14, and homes in urban areas before May.
Yingxiu township in Wenchuan county, the epicenter of the Sichuan earthquake, is twinned with Dongguan, an economic powerhouse in Guangdong province. Li Jiefeng, the city's chief of construction under the Third Company of China Seventh Engineering Bureau Ltd, said preliminary planning work was delayed by two months but refused to elaborate why.
However, Yingxiu farmers living on subsidies because almost all the arable land was destroyed said they were prevented by local authorities from getting jobs with construction companies. The township has instead relied on migrant workers, mostly from other parts of Sichuan, who have "come and gone in batches" over the past few months amid disputes over unpaid or delayed wages.
"None of us have a contract. We'll be back home by Spring Festival and that'll be it," said Wang Tao, a 21-year-old worker from Liangshan, a Yi autonomous prefecture in southern Sichuan, who was taking a break outside the iconic ruins of Xuankou Middle School.
Residents blamed the labor situation for the delays. "The government promised to move us into new homes in time for the Spring Festival, but now, with the holidays just a few days away, they've barely laid the foundations," said resident Wu Congjin.
Wang Jiyu, chief manager of Dongguan's reconstruction efforts, this month said all projects would be "basically completed" by May 12.
Elsewhere, physical reminders of the tragedy have already been demolished and replaced by lines of residential buildings as survivors look on, anxiously waiting to return home. Most people left their hometowns and are using monthly government subsidies of about 550 yuan to rent in neighboring cities while armies of workers rebuild entire districts, towns and counties.
But although the majority of Sichuan residents have shown admiration for those sweating on building sites across the province, few have been impressed by the performance of local officials, according to a recent survey.
Researchers at the Beijing-based Chinese Academy of Science and Technology for Development asked more than 4,000 households across 26 counties in Sichuan for feedback on the post-earthquake efforts. They discovered that, although 99 percent expressed satisfaction with the central and provincial governments, public trust in township authorities has declined since 2008.
Almost 350 Sichuan officials were found violating laws or Party discipline during earthquake-relief or reconstruction last year, said Ren Junnian, vice-secretary of the provincial discipline inspection commission last week. He insisted reconstruction projects had overall run smoothly.
One official under fire is Jiang Yongfu, Party chief of Yuzixi in Yingxiu, who recently broke his own ban on hostels in a village, which receives many visitors to its earthquake cemetery and has also been earmarked as the site of a future memorial park, a potential major tourist attraction.
"I wanted to open a hostel but (Jiang) would not let me or anybody else do it. He said no one was allowed to do something like that. Then, before we knew it, he opened one himself," said Li Dihong, 38, who runs a mahjong room in the village.
Jiang, who named the hostel after himself, even uses the quilts left by charities for survivors following the disaster.
"All this land belongs to me to the village," Jiang told China Daily. "We're bound to pioneer this effort so that people can follow suit in the future."
The reconstruction of rural homes affects more than 1.4 million families. Regulations state each earthquake survivor should receive 35 sq m of housing in compensation, while the State also vowed to give every household a subsidy of about 20,000 yuan.
But few villagers can even afford 800 yuan per sq m for their new homes and are resorting to taking out bank loans.
Han Yumei, Beichuan resident who lost her husband in the earthquake, has learned how to make Qiang embroidery, a local handicraft, thanks to training offered to survivors. She now earns 800 yuan a month selling her needlework to tourists. Like other rural residents, she still lives in a makeshift home but is expecting to move to a house in May.
"Now that I've got something to do and an income, I can slowly pay back the money I borrowed to buy the new house and support my kids," said Han, who has twin daughters in elementary school. "You can't live on without hope. For me, those two kids are my biggest hope. I'll raise them so that their dad can rest in peace."
Zou Jiai and her husband are among the few Beichuan natives who are working on construction sites in Yongchang, an entirely new township where the county government will sit from May. Most workers are from elsewhere in the province, while some have come from across China to build Yongchang, which translates as "forever prosperity", a name given to the township by President Hu Jintao.
The earthquake flattened Zou's new home, killing three members of her family and leaving her with a heavy debt.
"My husband and I used to work in Fujian province. We came back after the earthquake," she said. "At first we stayed because we needed to build a new house but we soon discovered the county had lots of construction sites and that jobs were everywhere. We make about 200 yuan a day and we should be able to pay back all our debts in a year or two."
Further north in Qingchuan, Fan Xiulin, 35, said she and her husband had worked away for more than a decade before spending all their savings on a three-story home that was destroyed in the earthquake.
Their new house was completed last spring with help from the local government and workers from Zhejiang province, Qingchuan's twinning partner.
"Their support has been as much material as it has been spiritual. I thank them from the bottom of my heart," she said. "Yes, we may have borrowed about another 60,000 yuan in the process, but my husband and I are still young. We can afford to start all over again."