By Qian Gang — History often makes us wring our hands. But perhaps this story, which is still very near to us, cannot yet be called history. On March 1, 2008, 72 days before devastating Wenchuan earthquake struck, earthquake preparedness quiz competitions were held in various parts of Sichuan. I don’t know whether people in Chengdu still remember cartoons like Dull Dog Versus the Overlord (笨笨狗PK巨能霸) [video here] and Toad Child (蟾童) [video here], which sought to convey basic scientific facts about earthquakes.
And I wonder how, after the earthquake struck, the Luojiang County team (罗江代表队) that won the “Deyang City Cup” (德阳数码电脑城杯), the first prize in Dayang’s local televised quiz for earthquake preparedness knowledge, assessed that competition that had been tied up so intimately with their lives and well-being.
[ABOVE: A still from “Toad Child,” an earthquake preparedness cartoon that aired in Chengdu ahead of last year’s Wenchuan earthquake.]
The earthquake destroyed much, including people’s memories. After the earthquake struck, we rarely heard people talk again about the earthquake preparedness work that was carried out before the quake.
But Wenchuan is not the final stop. There will be other major disasters in our future. So we must keep our wits about us, and we must learn our painful lessons.
The efforts we did make must not be obliterated, even if they fell short.
[ABOVE: Still from the television cartoon “Dull Dog,” which aired just weeks before the Sichuan quake struck. Here Dull Dog says, “Look, these are geological maps I searched out using my computer.”]
The test questions for a couple of these earthquake preparedness competitions are still available on the websites of the Mianyang and Deyang earthquake protection bureaus. There are 100 questions on the test form for Mianyang, and 200 on the test form for Deyang.
When I read these lists of questions I felt deeply sad and conflicted. What makes the deepest impression when you read these questions is knowing that prior to the 8.0 magnitude earthquake the government and people in the quake zone were not entirely ignorant about earthquakes and safety measures. Mianyang and Deyang were both designated as key areas for earthquake surveillance and protection (重点监视防御区) in 2004, and this state “secret” (机密) had already effectively been made public by means of these earthquake preparedness competitions themselves.
The test materials made it clear that these cities were located in an earthquake zone (the Longmenshan Fault passes through both cities), and that earthquakes had occurred there before (the 6.2 Beichuan earthquake in 1958 and the 1976 quakes at Songbo and Pingwu).
Both cities stressed the importance of building safety in these tests. Question number 88 on the Mianyang test, a multiple choice question, asks: “In earthquake disasters that have happened in recent years, what is the key reason for the common occurrence of the collapse of ‘shoddy’ buildings? A: work is not done according to standards; B: cheating on workmanship and materials; C: pre-fabricated structures cannot sufficiently withstand earthquakes.”
Question number 146 on the Deyang test asked: “Why must work quality be emphasized in particular as a factor in the earthquake resistance of buildings?” The standard answer provided for this question even raised the issue of the 1995 collapse of a structurally weak middle school building in Guangdong after an earthquake struck the Taiwan Straits.
There were no short-term predictions for the Wenchuan earthquake, and the event caught everyone off-guard. But one important impetus behind these quiz competitions — aside from the tenth anniversary of China’s Law on Earthquake Disaster Prevention — was the long–term forecast made in 2005.
Aba, Chengdu, Mianyang, Dayong — all of these places that later fell within the earthquake disaster zone — had already leapt into action.
The events of March 1, 2008, were of course merely quiz competitions. An major earthquake was already near, and even though these competitions conveyed important facts and concepts, it was already too late to make thorough inspections and repairs. But the topics and questions in these quiz competitions harbor important lessons for future earthquake preparedness work. China will experience more earthquakes, even major ones.
I hope that the government departments responsible for earthquake preparedness work will revise and bring back these valuable materials used for the quiz competitions, sharing them nationwide.
If these materials are revised according to the lessons of the Wenchuan earthquake, then I hope the government will place greater emphasis on the question of construction quality, particularly quality issues at schools and public buildings — and also on emergency information for students.
There should also be more emphasis on testing and reporting (of geological data) by the general public (群测群防), encouraging social organizations and individuals to conduct seismic monitoring to give us more information about possible quakes. Both of these focal points have been raised in the revised Law on Earthquake Disaster Prevention, which took effect on May 1.
[Posted by David Bandurski, May 12, 2009, 6:22pm HK]