Peter Hessler’s Sichuan Postcard: After the Earthquake

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Yang Weihua/ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

Peter Hessler, author of the excellent book Oracle Bones and a former English teacher in Sichuan province in China, writes in the New Yorker about the response to the recent Chinese Earthquake Sichuan Postcard: After the Earthquake:

This week, it’s unlikely that there will be much good news coming from China. But the rescue crews will, one hopes, make progress, and there may be reason for some Sichuan-style optimism. First, it seems that the Chinese government has been relatively open about news coverage, and it doesn’t seem to be restricting e-mails and phone calls. Second, the scale of destruction could easily have been worse. The epicenter was near the city of Dujiangyan, which in May of 2001 started construction on a massive hydroelectric dam on the Min River. Big dams are common in China, and Dujiangyan was one of the nation’s “Ten Key Projects” aimed at producing electricity and better water supplies.

By 2003, there were signs that the government was quietly expanding the project, and silt had begun to accumulate at a second location on the river. Dujiangyan is home to a local irrigation system that has functioned for more than two thousand years and has been declared a World Heritage site; it would have been effectively destroyed by the new dam. The city’s World Heritage Office opposed the project, contacting journalists from Chinese publications. The press was allowed to report with relative openness, in part because it portrayed the dam as destructive of cultural heritage. But one of the local entities that openly opposed the dam was the Dujiangyan Seismological Bureau.

In August of 2003, dam construction was forced to stop. In the history of the People’s Republic, this represented the first time that an engineering project on such a scale had been cancelled because of public pressure. (For a full account, see “Unbuilt Dams,” by Andrew C. Mertha and William R. Lowry, published in the October, 2006, issue of Comparative Politics.) Today, with Dujiangyan in ruins and the government struggling to respond, there’s some small consolation in the fact that at least there wasn’t another major dam on the site. And maybe later, after the emergency has passed, officials will remember the importance of the press and the seismological experts in stopping the dam. Sichuan’s greatest resource has always been its people, and sometimes the government just needs to listen to them.

Hessler also wrote about China’s Instant Cities in last year’s National Geographic, and on What’s Next on development in China in the May 2008 issue.

3 thoughts on “Peter Hessler’s Sichuan Postcard: After the Earthquake”

  1. Dear Mr. Hessler,

    I’ve read both River Town and Oracle Bones, and am anxiously awaiting your 3rd China book, Country Driving, which I saw mentioned in your National Geographic article.

    You are so correct about the importance of government listening to its people. I would not, however, limit it to the government of Sichuan. We’ve seen proof of the wisdom of crowds over and over again. The people are often “smarter” than the most talented leaders.

    Hopefully all government leaders, regardless of political system or ideology, give much weight to the insights and judgment of the people.

  2. I am a big fan of Peter Hessler’s writing style, combining wit/humor with facts and insightful thought provoking commentary. “River Town” and “Oracle Bones” both certainly fit that description, and I look forward to more from this great China writer. I am anxious to know if his students Willy and Nancy went back to Sichuan as planned (O.Bones pg 420), and if they and their families arew ok?????
    The Uiger character Polat reminds me so much of the movie character Borat on their adventures in America; maybe a movie of Polat should be pursued?
    Best-Gary from Ohio ps-been to China > 50 times and know some Chinese (1000 words), but am envious of Peter’s command of verbal and writrten Character Chinese, the latter escapes me!

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