It’s difficult to find anyone in Chengdu, a laidback city in central China known for its pandas and spicy food, who doesn’t know where they were at 2:28 p.m. on May 12, 2008.
That’s when a massive earthquake, one of the worst ever in China, left 87,000 people dead, 370,000 injured, and five million people homeless in the Sichuan Province around Chengdu.
The earthquake happened during the school day. Substandard construction of the buildings resulted in thousands of children dying in what become known as “tofu schools” because they were so unstable and toppled during the earthquake.
The mountains around Sichuan rise more than three miles above the neighboring plains and about 40 miles from Chengdu. They form a wrinkle in the earth’s crust caused by the Indian and Eurasian plates pushing against each other. They’re the same forces that formed the Himalayas.
The towns most affected by 2008’s magnitude-8 earthquake—such as Beichuan, Wenchuan, and Mianzhu—were built near the Longmenshan Fault, a tear in the earth’s crust and a hotspot for quakes. The 2008 event shook buildings nearby for nearly two minutes and was felt 800 miles away in Beijing.
The disaster happened just as China was ready to host the Summer Olympics, a sort of coming-out party for the country.
Over the past decade, China worked to rebuild the homes and lives of those affected. Shiny new roads and sturdy buildings replaced the rubble. Displaced families found new homes. Bereaved parents gave birth to thousands of so-called “replacement children.” Earthquake warning systems were put in place throughout the country.
A nationwide initiative was launched to ensure safe primary and middle schools, injecting about $60 billion toward the goal of making schools safe.
Nevertheless, critics say the Chinese government, which they believe should be held accountable for the inferior buildings, have rejected fair compensation for those affected by the tragedy.
The misuse of money also created a huge credibility problem for the government. At one point, a Chinese celebrity’s photos flaunting her lavish lifestyle on social media became the catalyst for exposing the Red Cross Society’s mismanagement of the Sichuan relief funds.
The woman claimed to be working for a Red Cross subsidiary even as she regularly shared pictures of herself posing with luxury cars at upscale resorts and restaurants. After angry online readers dug into her personal life, it emerged that her boyfriend was a shareholder of an investment-holding group affiliated with the Red Cross.
Ultimately, a variety of people were convicted of embezzling funds. As a result of this scandal and others, Chinese remain reluctant to donate funds to charities.
Ten years later, the memories of what happened still loom large. A government desire to declare “thanksgiving” for what happened after the earthquake created a stir on the internet. Many wanted the victims to be remembered rather than what the government did after the earthquake. See DaTimes at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/10/world/asia/china-sichuan-earthquake-thanksgiving.html
For better and worse, the earthquake changed the region and the country and continues to do so even today.