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Graft fears as China turns to quake reconstruction

by Staff Writers
Juyuan, China (AFP) June 11, 2008
China has insisted it will not allow corruption to infect its huge earthquake reconstruction effort, but one month after the disaster not everyone is convinced reality will match the pledge.

The temptation is clear -- billions of dollars have flowed into China from around the world to help survivors of the devastating May 12 quake that killed more than 69,000 people.

China's government has also earmarked 10 billion dollars for reconstruction efforts this year in its southwestern province of Sichuan, with more due next year.

With so much money sloshing around, and regular admissions from China's ruling Communist Party that corruption in its ranks is a major problem, there is perhaps forgivable scepticism that some of the aid will be siphoned off en route to those who need it most.

"Not all government officials are corrupt, but that's the way things are done here," said Juyuan resident He Feng, a 59-year-old farmer.

Juyuan is the town where hundreds of children were killed when their school collapsed on top of them, and grieving parents have alleged that corruption was a major factor in the substandard construction of buildings.

Asked about official assurances that corruption will not affect the relief effort, He Feng shrugged his sun-darkened shoulders.

"That's unlikely," he said, raising a sardonic eyebrow at the thought.

In the Chinese capital, similar sentiments appear to run strong, with 58 percent of Beijingers who donated to the quake victims fearing their funds will be extorted, according to a survey in the Beijing News on Wednesday.

And China's General Audit Office is receiving more than 100 phone calls or emails a day reporting embezzlement of funds and supplies for the quake area, the party-run Legal Daily newspaper said.

The huge amounts of money for post-quake relief make an enticing target for sticky-fingered government officials at all levels, said dissident journalist Dai Qing.

Dai is a longtime critic of the massive Three Gorges Dam and the corruption linked to it. Enormous sums of money were reportedly siphoned off, including from programmes aimed at resettling the millions of people displaced by the dam's reservoir.

Dai said China must urgently set up independent mechanisms on quake-proof reconstruction, use of funds, and other key reconstruction issues to avoid a Three Gorges repeat.

"Making all these issues transparent and publicising the results of relevant investigations should be the first step toward reconstruction," she said.

The dust had barely settled after the quake when the reek of graft emerged, as parents of dead children alleged corruption led to so many school buildings collapsing.

They used the term "tofu dregs" to describe reportedly substandard concrete used at Juyuan Middle School and others, noting that many nearby buildings survived the quake.

An estimated 7,000 schools were destroyed, killing about 9,000 students and teachers.

Other instances of corruption have also emerged post-quake.

In the quake-devastated city of Mianyang, Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily reported tents being used by people whose homes had not been destroyed.

In Deyang, government officials were found hiding cases of milk, biscuits and drinks in a shop run by their relatives, a website reported -- sparking a near-riot by thousands of angry victims.

In an indication of the concern, China's media have questioned top officials at press conferences about such reports.

With the eyes of the world on the relief effort, the government has warned that any corruption will be dealt with harshly, and a new set of guidelines on reconstruction has stressed transparency.

But Dai said China needed to loosen its controls, particularly on the state-run media, if it wanted to really ensure that corruption does not impede rebuilding.

"We need an open media to supervise corrupt officials and be the eyes and ears of the people," she said. "It is impossible for the top leaders to watch all the officials in the country."

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China's 'quake lake' shrinks further: report
Beijing (AFP) June 11, 2008
A day after China declared victory over a dangerous "quake lake," waters receded further Wednesday, state press said, but authorities warned the danger period was not over due to predicted heavy rains.

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