At Chinese Tent City, Order and Incongruity

21 May 2008 - The 20,000 earthquake victims crammed into a stadium in Mianyang survive largely based on the goodwill of volunteers, and each other's helping hand. (Video by Travis Fox)
By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 21, 2008

MIANYANG, China, May 20 -- The heart of the largest tent city in Sichuan province is at the foot of the steps to Jiu Zhou Sports Stadium, in front of a bulletin board of handwritten appeals for missing parents and children. Above, three Chinese flags fly at half-staff as the newly homeless watch TV news updates about the country's deadliest earthquake in three decades.

All around, refugees search for family members, seek first aid and wait in lines for cooked rice and instant noodles. Nowhere, it seems, are senior officials directing anything.

The propaganda chief from the municipal Communist Party committee, who appears to be nominally in charge, knows enough to say that the arena is home to 20,000 of the 12 million people left homeless by last week's 7.9-magnitude earthquake. But mostly, this tent city runs on autopilot, an oasis from the chaos that has marked each refugee's panicked flight from the hardest-hit towns near the quake's epicenter.

"I don't know who is in charge here," said Liu Yu, a young volunteer from the China Academy of Engineering Physics, a nuclear weapons research center that had positioned two laptops in front of the bulletin board so survivors could check a database for relatives. "We just follow the orders of our research institute."

In most disasters around the world, relief agencies or government officials direct organized teams of volunteers. Usually, China rigidly scripts its official response to emergencies to bolster the party's image. But as with everything about this quake, the response this time has been unusual. The magnitude of the tragedy has inspired civilians of all stripes to turn up in ad hoc fashion, dishing out food they have cooked and medicine they have bought themselves, and helping the tent city run smoothly, even if it does not have enough supplies.

So far, the government and military have shipped 280,000 tents to the disaster zone and contracted for an additional 700,000 to be delivered as fast as they can be produced and packed. In the meantime, the government has dispatched 800,000 nylon tarps to be used as makeshift tents.

"Once the homeless people are in stable conditions, then we will work out a plan for reconstruction," Jiang Li, deputy civil affairs minister, told reporters in Beijing on Tuesday, noting that 21 million houses had been damaged and more than 5 million destroyed. "Right now, we're focusing on people's immediate needs and guaranteeing their well-being."

So far, the tent city refugees have been polite, patient and orderly, even while lining up for not enough food and not enough blankets. They sleep on treadmills, in a boxing ring, under plastic tarps stretched across newly planted saplings and in army tents. Some weep, but many play down their misfortune or apologize for complaining about their losses.

"Sometimes, we wait a long time and we cannot get any food if we are too late in joining the line," said Fan Xingwu, 42, a potato and corn farmer waiting for dinner with an enamel cup and a pair of chopsticks. "We know that now is a difficult time. We're not asking for much. Actually, all I want is to have something to cover my stomach when I sleep at night, instead of sharing a blanket."

There are identity cards for those who arrived at the tent city early and registered. Some said the cards entitled them to better benefits, including more food; others managed to eat without a card. At mealtime Tuesday, two Buddhist monks were among the volunteers who suddenly appeared with large vats of cooked rice. They dished it out until there was none left, and the line of people waiting quietly disappeared.

Meanwhile, those who have lost relatives are putting their energies into surviving as much as grieving.

"The reason they can withstand this is because they understand this is a natural disaster and there is nothing you can do about it," said Zheng Chao, 50, an accountant at Beichuan Hospital, whose family survived. "It's different from losing someone to illness."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company