China is still working to recover from 2008 quake, and from years of ecological abuse

China 2010

By Joseph Frolik

May 26, 2010

Appeared in The Plain Dealer

Plain Dealer Chief Editorial Writer Joe Frolik is in China on a Gatekeeper Editors trip organized by the International Reporting Project, an independent journalism program based in Washington, D.C., and affiliated with Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.

Our group has moved on from Beijing to Chengdu in southwest China. It is an enormous city by any standard, except maybe those of the Chinese, to whom a metropolitan population of more than 10 million and, by most estimates, about 3.5 million in the urban core seems pretty normal.

In the past decade, as the central government has tried to encourage development in the interior of the country, Chengdu has boomed. There's a huge statue of Chairman Mao Zedong in the city's main square, but modern Chengdu bears very little resemblance to the communist utopia he had in mind. Downtown is awash in construction, and all of the symbols of international consumer culture are on prominent display.

Out for a walk, I remembered our hotel's location by reminding myself that it was right by the corner of Louis Vuitton and Gucci.

Still, Chengdu has a very manageable feel -- certainly by comparison with Beijing. I'm reminded of Chicago: a bustling downtown surrounded by interesting neighborhoods, including a Tibetan one. Sichuan is one of China's most ethnically diverse provinces and that's clear on the streets.

Chengdu also has one of the most beautiful and best-designed urban parks I've ever seen. Meandering along the Jinjiang River, Baihuaton Park has teahouses and gardens and lots of little nooks where people can sit to talk or meditate or just watch the world go by. On a weekend afternoon, there were hundreds, maybe a couple of thousand people there, but it didn't feel at all crowded.

Two years ago this month, large parts of Sichuan were devastated by an earthquake that killed some 68,000 people and leveled entire communities. On our second day in Chengdu, we drove about 50 miles from the city into the east edge of the Tibetan Plateau. The terrain was rugged, cut by rivers, with winding roads that seemed to end within feet of deep gorges. Think eastern Kentucky or other parts of Appalachia.

The quake's devastation remains. There are piles of rubble where houses stood on the morning of May 12, 2008, and huge gouges left by landslides on the sides of hills. Even today, our caravan was delayed at one point while work crews cleaned up a small avalanche that closed the main road. Many families still live in temporary housing.

But there also has been enormous rebuilding. Faced with the worldwide recession, China's government launched its own massive stimulus spending program, and a large chunk was designated to accelerate earthquake recovery. It clearly is paying off. The same seven-day-a-week construction you see in Chengdu is going on far from the city center, too.

Our guide for the day was one of China's most prominent environmental advocates. Lu Zhi teaches conservation biology at Beijing University and started the Shan Shui Conservation Society, a nonprofit group that's trying to encourage more eco-awareness in China, where ecology usually takes a backseat to economic growth. In 1999, on the 50th anniversary of Mao's takeover, The New York Times featured Lu as one of five young Chinese leaders to watch. The paper clearly had some good talent scouts.

Lu became famous in China with her research on pandas. But the more she studied the habits of the endangered animals, the more she broadened her focus to look at the reasons why they're in danger. That led her to become an advocate for protecting and restoring China's fragile forests and water systems. The country's emotional and cultural attachment to pandas helped her make the case.

"The more you learn about the pandas, the more you realize it's not just about the pandas, it's about everyone," she said as we wound our way toward Nine Peaks Mountain, where there's a cluster of newly built vacation homes and -- a couple hundred meters higher up -- a splintered temple. The site is about 10 kilometers from the epicenter of the earthquake. Our stop was on the edge of massive nature preserve on a transit path used by some of the fewer than 2,000 pandas that still live in the wild.

Concern about the pandas led to creation of this and other preserves, she said. About a decade ago, after massive floods triggered landslides on hills that had been clear-cut, the local government banned logging, began reforestation efforts and offered subsidies to help workers find new jobs, including in eco-tourism. Lu's organization has been deeply involved in earthquake relief, suggesting more sustainable rebuilding methods and winning the confidence of local residents. As a result, the locals have grown even more vigilant about poachers who illegally log or hunt in the preserve and surrounding areas.

"People respond to disasters," she said. "That's a reality."