Chinese Officials Shift Focus to Relief Efforts

By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 24, 2008

Eleven days after a massive earthquake hit Sichuan province, Chinese officials are moving away from rescue operations to concentrate on the care and relocation of survivors.

"The focus of relief work is shifting from saving lives to rehabilitating victims," Wang Baodong, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, told reporters yesterday.

The change in emphasis followed meetings of the country's senior Communist Party leadership, including President Hu Jintao. It is an acknowledgment that rescuers are unlikely to find additional survivors of the May 12 quake, which Premier Wen Jiabao said today had caused at least 60,000 deaths and possibly as many as 80,000. Nearly 25,000 people remain missing.

Wang appealed to countries to donate 3.3 million tents urgently needed to shelter those who lost homes in the quake, a figure that exceeds 5 million people. Hu visited two tent manufacturers in the area to urge them to produce as many as possible.

Chinese officials are beginning to map out the next stage of the relief strategy to deliver more food, medical supplies and makeshift housing to the quake zone, where an estimated 28 million people were affected by the temblor, which Chinese authorities now say was a magnitude of 8.0 but the U.S. Geological Survey recorded at 7.9. Wang said that, in addition to large military-style tents, the relief effort needs blankets, clothes, quilts, food, medicine, and medical and engineering equipment. Medical teams from Russia, Japan and Italy, in addition to Macau and Hong Kong, are helping on site.

"The anti-quake task remains daunting, but sound foundations have been laid. The Chinese people and government are very grateful for the international community," Wang added.

China has been in close contact with the U.S. government, which has donated $3 million in materials and cash. As of Thursday, an additional $30 million had been contributed by private U.S. citizens and corporations. Wang said some companies, such as FedEx, have offered to deliver assistance. The U.S. military has transported other emergency supplies. Religious groups have shipped relief aid on their own.

Wang said all of China's nuclear facilities in the area "are in good shape. They are safe."

He said that "50 sources of radioactive materials were buried" in the aftermath of the earthquake, 35 of which have been contained. The others are being worked on to prevent nuclear leaking.

"Those are small devices containing radioactive material for medical and hospital use," he said.

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