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Voice: Tallying up China's disasters
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By Liu Jian

"Had the earthquake occurred in U.S., would there have been such a heavy death toll as in China?"

The question was raised just in the immediate wake of the devastating earthquake that pummeled Sichuan Province on May 12.

The answer is no. That is because areas in the USA that experience natural catastrophes, akin to Wenchuan County of Sichuan Province, are mostly unpopulated.

Yet comparisons have emerged nevertheless in the face of natural disasters, citing that similarities do exist in these two countries because of their comparable geographical size.

Another question was raised: "Do Americans struggle regularly against flooding?"

The answer is "no" again. The levee on the Mississippi River can only withstand the severest flooding that occurs every 20 years. The area most easily afflicted by flooding makes itself all but uninhabitable, forcing people to retreat to the higher ground. Therefore, flooding is not such a menace in the U.S. as it is in China.

In China it is the other way around where the land is also vast but overpopulated. A myriad of rivers and tributaries periodically forces the cities and towns on the lower reaches to succumb to rising waters. Flood threats are a constant issue that millions of people deal with each year.

Even in the seismically active zone that is ill served by transportation, people have lived there for generations despite safety hazards. Unquestionably, this is the plight of millions of struggling Chinese.

The quake victims in Sichuan Province plan to rebuild their homes on the same land in lieu of other alternative sites. Only Beichuan County residents will relocate miles away. Because their next-door neighbors who had formerly dwelled near the Three Gorges areas have now been jammed into cities across the country over the last decade, straining the city capacity to its limits, most of them choose to stay put.

Interestingly, when China was mired in deep poverty, about thirty years ago, have-nots were quite eager to migrate to any disaster-hit area – they had more opportunities. They would usually be given a boost toward rebuilding and rehabilitation after a disaster. People came seeking bread and butter opportunities that were not easy to come by in their hometowns.

Yet another headache must be addressed: how to build safe, solid housing for quake victims. China should emulate earthquake-prone Japan who always executes high building code standards.

But before blindly copying our Japanese neighbors we must be aware of the fact that there are 1.3 billion people and a significant number of them live in Sichuan; all have conflicting concerns.

Let's exhume another horrifying event from oblivion: the freak snowstorm at the beginning of this year. Someone asked why a horde of migrant workers willingly crammed themselves into stations to travel home: was Spring Festival that important for them?

Others have even suggested that the Ministry of Railways should increase ticket prices for the holiday period to cut the demand.

Yet one thing is evident: For most of the passengers pouring through the railway stations, the only thing that matters for them is getting home. For average travelers, the railway station is just a place to begin a journey. Yet for migrant workers who have toiled year round miles away from home, the station is something else: a spot that beckons them to go on sabbatical to reunite with families and chuck up their daily grind for a while.

Each disaster is a constant reminder that China is not yet as strong as it appears. This is critical moment for China and many diverse factors must be considered carefully.

(China.org.cn translated by He Shan, June 20, 2008)

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