For China's Local Officials, a New Test

Often Dismissed as Remiss or Corrupt, Bureaucrats Now Find Themselves The Main Caretakers for Quake Victims

China continues recovery efforts after a devastating 7.9-magnitude earthquake hit central China on May 12, 2008, and rendered millions of people homeless.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 31, 2008; Page A08

BAIYUNDONG EVACUATION POINT, China, May 30 -- Eleven thousand people were ordered to evacuate to this mountain slope in a matter of hours on Friday. With floodwaters to be diverted through the valley below, it was Shen Yuanfeng's job to make sure those from her community settled in safely.

Shen, who worked as a government administrator of her neighborhood before the quake, walked a field that was sprouting thousands of tents, looking for problems. Just as she stopped one newly arriving family from pushing their way into another's tent, her cellphone rang. She was putting the phone to her ear when a woman ran up. "An old person just arrived and they don't look so good. Do something!"

Shen rushed off with the woman, the cellphone still glued to her ear.

Traditionally dismissed as do-nothing, often-corrupt paper pushers, local functionaries are now bearing the responsibility for keeping people safe following this month's earthquake, anticipating their needs and getting real answers to their questions. Their role has been striking in a country where the Communist Party's vow to "serve the people" has long been regarded by many as an empty slogan.

"Before, I never paid attention to government performance," Ma Yanqun, a 32-year-old evacuee, said as she sat on a plastic stool looking out on the Fujian River, waiting for its waters to rise. "Now, there are cadres digging toilets. I think they're doing a really good job."

Millions of lives have been thrown into chaos by the May 12 earthquake, its hundreds of aftershocks and now a planned flood to ease pressure on a damaged dam. On Friday, Sichuan provincial authorities ordered the evacuation of at least 40,000 more people from the path of the planned flood, bringing the total to almost 200,000 and adding to the pressure on local bureaucrats, who have been thrust to front lines of emergency rescue in China's biggest natural disaster in a generation.

Government propaganda has unceasingly told people in the quake zone to "trust the government" in how it manages the aftermath of the earthquake, which has left 80,000 dead or missing. Many here in Mianyang city have little choice. They have lost loved ones, homes and livelihoods.

But for their faith in government to endure, local officials must deliver on the promise that people will be taken care of.

"I feel so much pressure on my shoulders," Zhao Yuanxiu said as she stood next to her own makeshift tent along the evacuation route, pitched on a bluff overlooking the river. Before the earthquake, Zhao compiled labor statistics for the Fucheng district government. Now, she assembles with other government employees in front of the town hall at 8 every morning to get a mission for the day. On Thursday, it was to give out guidelines about the Tangjiashan Lake evacuation. On other days, it is to distribute food or answer relief questions.

The worst for her is when she doesn't have answers -- not for those who ask or for herself. "People ask me every day: 'When and how will the government help us rebuild our houses?' 'What is the government's policy?' 'What should we do next?' Those questions I cannot answer because I haven't gotten an answer," Zhao said.

Zhao knows how the anxiety gnaws. Her 70-year-old mother-in-law despairs of being able to pay her granddaughter's school tuition, now that her home and farm were destroyed in the quake. The mother-in-law, Jiang Changying, has taken care of the 10-year-old girl since she was 3 and her father and mother, Zhao's sister, left Sichuan as migrant workers.

"It's going to be really miserable," Jiang said. "I have no money and no house."

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