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After the earthquake comes the shock of waiting

MIANZHU, one of the cities most damaged in the May 12 earthquake last year, is now a town in waiting, home to communities of survivors who are waiting for a future. Xinhua news agency writer Gong Yidong looks at these people now enveloped in an atmosphere of hope and ennui

Liu Daihe, 43, lights a cigarette passed to him by his cousin Liu Daishu and spreads the mahjong tiles over the table. Puffing smoke into his 20-square-meter temporary house, he settles down to idle away another day with friends and relatives.

It is a typical scene in the temporary 11,000-house community to the north of Mianzhu, one of the cities most damaged in the May 12 earthquake that left more than 80,000 Chinese dead or missing. Liu and the 40,000 inhabitants are enveloped in an atmosphere of hope and ennui that contrasts with the obvious grief of eight months ago.

Before the catastrophe, Liu was a phosphorous miner for many years in Qingping, Mianzhu.

But the mine, one of the mainstay local industries, was swallowed up by the quake.

As the breadwinner of the family, Liu looked for jobs elsewhere, but was turned down because of his age. "I'm not competitive in the market. More importantly, I don't have technical skills, except from doing hard labor in the pit."

Financial assistance is also dwindling. Last year, the government handed out 200 yuan (US$29.25) per person per month for eight months and 33.5 kilograms of grain per head for three months, but all financial and material support ended in January, says Liu.

"Nowadays, around 15 percent of the people in the community live on what they had before," his cousin says.

The price of commodities has climbed because of rising transport costs, and Liu and his wife, Chen Mingfang, have to rack their brains to make ends meet.

What concerns the couple most is their 14-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter, who are studying at secondary school.

Changying, the daughter, will take the national college entrance examination this summer, meaning a lot of money will be needed if she is enrolled into university. This term alone, they paid more than 2,000 yuan (US$292) for her tuition fees and living expenses.

Her brother, Chenglin, pays 9 yuan a day for three meals in the school canteen as a boarder.

Liu's mother-in-law, who lives under the same roof, is covered by neither a pension nor the rural cooperative medical care scheme. Liu is grateful that the past winter was mild compared to the previous year.

"Otherwise, she might have caught a severe cold," he says.

For a while, Liu accepted employment in a private mine hundreds of kilometers away in Yibin, southern Sichuan, where he was paid 80 yuan a day to work from 4am to 4pm.

The pay was satisfactory, but the toil and loneliness in a strange city were intolerable. The man of few words killed time by playing mahjong with his colleagues, and sometimes, gambling for pennies.

Unlike many parts of Sichuan where the natural conditions are harsh, Mianzhu has fewer people moving to big cities like Beijing or Guangzhou for job opportunities.

Sense of security

"Before the quake, Mianzhu was blessed with favorable conditions, with no storms or landslides, and most of us preferred to stay in our hometown," Liu Daishu says.

Adding to their sense of security were the many industries sprawling across the city, including key national companies Dongfang Turbine, Lonmon Chemicals and Jiannanchun Distillery, which absorbed a large number of local workers.

"We were used to an easy way of life here," says Liu.

The Bureau of Labor Resources and Social Security of Mianzhu reports that around 20,000 local people are working outside Sichuan Province, less than one tenth of the total labor force.

Before the Spring Festival in late January, Liu returned and worked at another small mine set up by one of his fellow villagers in the neighboring city of Shifang.

Employment has been a priority since the earthquake. In the past year, the Mianzhu labor bureau has offered more than 18,000 public-welfare posts at modest salaries, such as warehouse work or street sweeping.

At the same time about 6,000 people have been trained in sewing and construction courses, according to Chen Shanyong, the bureau chief.

Jiangsu Province, which is responsible for the point-to-point assistance to Mianzhu, offered another 50,000 jobs at five large job fairs, and 6,000 locals were taken to the coastal province. "In spite of the earthquake, we didn't encounter major problems in employment creation last year," Chen says.

But the reality turns out to be less positive. Liu's niece, Jiang Mingyu says it is difficult for her to set the tailoring shop as she wishes and the government is encouraging.

"Where can I get the initial funding to launch my business?"

Scarce jobs

It's true that they have in place micro credit loans, but the plan targets university graduates or young farmers.

"We don't have cash in our pockets for a change of life, so it's better to stay at home and do nothing because this saves money."

Women face greater disadvantages. During the day, Chen Mingfang goes to nearby construction sites to do odd jobs like mixing cement or carrying bricks, but such basic work is not readily available.

"I often move around different places," Chen says, wiping her brow in a kitchen shared by 10 families.

Meanwhile, the re-location of the Dongfang Turbine from the Hanwang town of Mianzhu to Deyang City is viewed as a serious blow, as many small businesses surrounding the factory had relied on it for income.

Export-oriented companies like Shengda Clothing and Lonmon Chemicals have also been hard hit by the financial crisis.

If jobs are the first priority, then second is housing. "A stable house drives home a sense of security, doesn't it?" says Liu.

For the moment, the 40,000 inhabitants in Liu's community have no clear idea where their permanent homes will be, as the town plan has yet to be drawn up.

The government of Mianzhu has agreed to provide a 16,000-yuan subsidy to each family, but that is far from enough to build a house, says Liu.

The cost of construction materials is a big worry. Bricks have risen from 0.6 yuan to 1.4 yuan each. Calculated this way, the cost of building a house has reached 820 yuan per square meter, Liu estimates. "It is unaffordable for most of us."

A survey by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (HKPU) of 1,600 households in Qingping in February suggests that each family has lost an average 60,000 yuan in assets.

"The most difficult time, the psychological pain, is over, but this has been replaced by confusion about the future," says Zhu Yuxin, a sociology teacher from Sichuan Agricultural University, who heads the Assets-based Community Reconstruction program in Qingping under the sponsorship of HKPU.

"Our central guideline is to explore and integrate the inner strength of t°?he fractured communities, so that effective means of livelihood will be secured.

"Right now, I'm also caught up by the complexity of the problems.

"All that we can do is to make a detailed survey, right from the beginning," he says.


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