On May 12, 2008, Mu Zhihui, a teacher in Beichuan, in southwestern China, was supervising her second graders as they watched Young Pioneer TV, a state-run education channel. Every day after the show, the class would discuss what they’d learned and share stories related to their lessons. The children were rarely at a loss for words — there were so many reasons to be a little patriot. For starters, they went to school in a futuristic all-white structure of swooping balconies and porthole windows, topped with an encouraging slogan cast in shimmering metal: go global from here.
At 2:28 p.m., the classroom began to sway. It was an earthquake — not uncommon in that region — and Mu ordered her charges to evacuate. The school was built on the slope of a mountain ridge, and her third-floor classroom opened directly onto the recess yard in the back. Several students quickly fled; others were too frightened to move, and Mu remained behind to coax them out. When they finally emerged, they were greeted by a horrifying sight. The earthquake had caused a landslide; many of the children who’d run out when instructed had been crushed by boulders. In all, 407 people were killed at the school that day. “I couldn’t bear to look out at a classroom of children ever again,” Mu told me on a cloudy fall day in 2015. “So I became a librarian.”
During the 7.9-magnitude earthquake, which left more than 69,000 dead, schools throughout Sichuan province were destroyed, even in towns where other structures remained intact. In Beichuan, around 1,300 middle school students also perished that day. Bereaved parents called it tofu-dregs construction: contractors, they alleged, had been given free rein to skirt building codes as long as they greased the right palms and completed projects swiftly. The suffering was compounded by the country’s One Child policy, though the central government subsequently authorized those who had lost children and were still fertile to reproduce.
Although the school collapses were largely suppressed in domestic media — to this day, the official death toll remains dubious — the catastrophe was a humiliation for China’s leaders. For years, the one-party state had dazzled the world with its bristling skylines. Now questions began to arise. Were these vaunted cities nothing more than Potemkin villages? What were the human costs of the nation’s blistering development model? Would China’s citizens continue to accept these wrenching trade-offs?
I met Mu, a warm but guarded woman in her forties, at New Beichuan Public Library, where she had worked for the past year. The library, a cavernous building of gray slate and dark wood, resembles a high-end ski lodge; like everything else in the city, it is conspicuously new. The whole city was conceived as a means of saving face. Ten days after the earthquake, the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, decided that Beichuan’s roughly ten thousand survivors — about half the population — would be rehoused nearby. By August, a location had been chosen: a cluster of impoverished farming villages fourteen miles downriver. Here, the government proclaimed, a new city would be wrought.
With the eyes of the world on rural Sichuan, the project became a national priority, a way of demonstrating the resilience and superiority of China’s authoritarian system. More than $1 billion was lavished on the effort. Construction proceeded at a pace that was stunning even for China — three years of work finished in two, as the slogan went. In early 2011, New Beichuan opened to residents with a grand outdoor banquet. Tables and chairs were set up in the streets and the lampposts were festooned with red lanterns.
The results of this time-lapse urbanism are by turns enviable and cloying. New Beichuan’s streets are spotless, the plantings in the medians meticulously trimmed. The neighborhoods, built on a human scale rarely found in China’s burgeoning megacities, are made up of six-story walk-ups painted in earth tones and bedecked with balconies. Meandering pedestrian paths laid out along landscaped canals, many of them planted with water lilies, beckon residents away from the wide avenues.
Elsewhere, however, New Beichuan feels overbearingly like the national showpiece it is. Immense government offices and state-owned banks line the major avenues. The central plaza, Rebirth Square, dwarfs the residential districts around it. Indeed, the place has the feeling of a ghost town; it was built to house 70,000 inhabitants, but the old town’s survivors and the rehoused residents of the villages that once stood here together number fewer than half that.
The public boarding school on Forever Happy Street, on the northern end of town, is the most outsized structure of all. Built around a number of vast sports fields, the gray stone dormitories are enlivened with mosaics, vertical stripes of subdued yellows, greens, blacks, and reds. Funded by donors from the Chinese diaspora and designed with input from M.I.T. and Harvard, the boarding school is the most prominent building in the city. This is fitting, since New Beichuan largely owes its existence to the school collapses of 2008.
Mu had teared up as she recalled the day of the quake, but when I asked her to comment on the controversy that lay behind the building of New Beichuan, her studied equanimity reappeared. She preferred to focus on China’s progress rather than its setbacks. Offering me a cup of strong green tea, she expressed pride in her library, her city, and her family’s achievements since the earthquake. Her son had been admitted to Fudan University, in Shanghai, one of the country’s most prestigious colleges. This would prepare him to reap his share of China’s growing prosperity. He had gone global.
“We are grateful to the government for building such a nice town for us,” Mu said in conclusion, and sent me on my way.
Shortly after the earthquake, the government decided to “preserve” the old city of Beichuan, leaving its piles of rubble and cracked, precariously leaning buildings as a tribute to the dead. Unofficial memorials to the victims, however, were proscribed. A citizens’ effort to compile the names of the deceased schoolchildren was quashed by the authorities, and Tan Zuoren, the leader of the project, was imprisoned for five years on charges of “inciting subversion of state power.” A commemorative installation by the artist Ai Weiwei — 9,000 colored backpacks that, when viewed from afar, spelled out a mourning Beichuan mother’s words about her daughter: “For seven years she lived happily in this world” — was displayed only abroad.
Zhang Min, a successful restaurant owner in New Beichuan, lives a half-hour drive from the ruins of the old city but had returned only once since the disaster. “I don’t ever want to go back,” she told me, echoing Mu’s reticence. “We need to look forward, we the living.” (She lost an aunt in the earthquake.) It is a common sentiment in a city whose leaders have made it an explicit goal to double the incomes of its residents. Locals refer to their pop-up hometown as Xinbeichuan — “New Beichuan” — but its official name is Yongchang: “Everlasting Prosperity.”
As we sat over tea at Zhang’s restaurant, which turns out homespun versions of Sichuan’s piquant, mouth-numbing cuisine, she began to tell me more about what happened on the day of the earthquake. In the morning, her hip had been bothering her, and she’d asked her husband to take her to the doctor. He suggested she wait a day or two, hoping it would heal on its own, and she reluctantly agreed. That afternoon the doctor’s office collapsed. The restaurant where they both worked — she as a waitress, he as a cook — also gave way, but the quake struck during the break between lunch and dinner: Zhang was in their apartment and her husband was fishing at the river. A colleague who was cleaning up between shifts was killed.
Zhang, seemingly unburdened by retelling her story, agreed to take me to the buried restaurant, and the next morning we set out early. She was dressed in black. Pulling up to the site of the old town, a misty spot where the plains meet the mountains, she asked that we skip the museum, a rust-colored gash built into the hillside that salutes the military-grade response in serried rows of Communist platitudes:
The phenomenal achievements accomplished in post-disaster relief and reconstruction . . . have fully demonstrated the extraordinary power of the c.p.c. and the soundness of its governing philosophy.
Instead, we went around the back of the building. “This is the famous middle school,” our driver — who had lost much of his extended family in the quake — said, hanging a left to reveal a mound of grass and a concrete incense-burning stand. The site was unmarked, its rubble either cleared or buried. I was confused. Wasn’t the middle school right next to the primary school where Mu Zhihui had taught? Hadn’t it, too, been hit by boulders from the landslide?
“There were two campuses,” he explained as we got out of the car. While the other campus had been destroyed by the landslide, this one, far from the ravine, collapsed because of shoddy construction, nothing more. We walked up the hill past the empty incense stand. At the top, the path opened onto the school’s recess yard, which had survived the quake and the subsequent bulldozing and was now littered with rescue vehicles that had pulled out buried survivors. The square had only a temporary, movable blue-and-white sign reading memorial park in Chinese. What it was memorializing it did not say. I asked Zhang why she thought the square lacked a permanent, official plaque, but, after hesitating for a moment, she decided not to respond.
From there, we walked the designated circuit, which, according to New Beichuan’s tourism office, has attracted more than 3 million visitors annually in recent years. In some places, destruction had rendered the private public. The facades of several residential buildings had been sheared off, creating clear views into apartments that were otherwise perfectly preserved. In one home, I could see a thermos on a kitchen table; it may still have had tea in it. These were the most affecting spaces along the tour, but none of the buildings were marked. A stand-alone sign in their vicinity summed up the philosophy of the memorial: farewell to sorrows say hello to tomorrows.
By contrast, the most mundane government offices were identified by plaques with exhaustive text in five languages. They all made it seem as though institutions, not individuals, were the victims. It reminded me of the way that, when the quake struck, major newspapers across China echoed the official line that the tragedy “tugged at the heartstrings of the Chinese Communist Party.”
On the official plaques that dotted the old town, victims were numbered rather than named. The only faces we saw were on markers set up by those rare government bureaus and state-owned enterprises that had opted to memorialize their employees individually. Outside the local office of China Mobile, the main state cellular service provider, eight deceased employees were numbered on the standard plaque, but a second sign beside the ruin bore photographs of each one of them. Zhang stopped, scanned the portraits, and paused for a moment to acknowledge a face she recognized.
At a supermarket that had nothing more than its original tattered sign, Zhang recalled: “We were regulars here because we lived so close. When the quake happened, a lot of people rushed in to grab food.” I peered through the gaping front door. The shelves had been stripped bare, some even ripped out.
Most visitors to the old city are exposed only to the tales of those survivors who were elevated to national celebrity by the state media. In front of a partially collapsed vocational school, now sprouting vines from its windows, a plaque recounted the legend of Coca-Cola Boy, who, when he was rescued after being buried for seventy-six hours, asked for a coke. Although his lower body was paralyzed and he had to get an amputation, he is, according to the plaque, “still positive.”
The tour culminated at the boulder-strewn campus of the Beichuan Middle School. Here the plaque broke the format; no death toll was given. Instead, it described the landslide that destroyed the school. All that had remained upright, apparently, was a “basketball stand and the five-starred red flag.”
From the on-site vending stall Zhang bought a yellow chrysanthemum, a traditional offering for the dead. Rather than place it by the concrete memorial built over the mass grave into which rescue workers had thrown some ten thousand unidentified bodies — it read simply 5.12 — she carried it a block farther, to her old restaurant. The building had sunk so far into the ground that the top of the first floor was no higher than Zhang’s shoulders. As rain began to fall, she placed the flower in front of the building. She then directed us around the corner to her old apartment.
Like so many residences constructed before China’s boom, the one-bedroom apartment was little more than a barracks, with tenants sharing a common bathroom out back. “I was walking from the bathroom back upstairs to my apartment when the quake hit,” she continued. “At first, I thought it was construction noise, but then the wall of the stairwell fell away. All of a sudden, I was looking out at the town and it was collapsing. I managed to jump down from the open stairwell but I broke my ankle.” With a guilty smile, she added, “I was wearing high heels.” Her wing of the building had broken off from the rest of the structure but was still upright. Standing on a raised platform built to move tourists around the relic, Zhang pointed out her old bedroom window. Security bars that she’d installed years earlier made it hard to see in.
“There’s still a bed, a washing machine, some clothing, and a flatscreen TV in there,” Zhang said.
“Don’t you want it back?” I asked.
“No, I have a bigger flatscreen in my apartment today.”
Later that afternoon, Zhang invited me to see her new home, a condominium in one of the most luxurious private apartment buildings in New Beichuan. She vouched for me at the security gate, and we entered a central courtyard where palm trees surrounded a tiered stone fountain. Up the elevator, the door to her family’s unit opened onto a living room with what was indeed a large flatscreen TV. The condo has more bedrooms than the Zhang family can use, so one sits idle as a guest room, done up with an orange Snoopy bedspread.
Zhang was born in the late Seventies, when China began implementing its economic reforms. Since then, the economy had grown at a staggering pace — averaging almost 10 percent a year. (Over the same period, the U.S. economy grew at an annual rate of around 3 percent, and real wages barely budged.) Zhang was nearing forty and had never experienced a recession. Today, even the most pessimistic economists estimate that China’s annual growth rate is running at only 6 percent, a figure most countries would be glad to post.
“I grew up in the countryside,” Zhang said as she offered me freshly harvested walnuts and cherries. “I remember when it was raining, there was mud on my shoes and trousers. I resolved that I didn’t want to walk on a street like that. I wanted a paved road!” She lit out for the nearest city and became a waitress. Soon she opened her own restaurant. Her journey has now led her to Yongchang, where she can walk — or drive — down perfectly paved roads. The Zhangs recently bought their first car, a Hyundai.
Even old Beichuan was once new — not that this is something you would learn from the earthquake memorial or museum, which make no mention of its pre-2008 history. The city was built in 1952. Under Mao, rural villagers from the mountains were relocated to this new town at the edge of the plains. The danger was clear from the start: the city was built in a gorge along an active fault line. In the Reform Era, when the country’s economy began booming and prosperity filtered down to smaller, inland cities such as Beichuan, there were rumors that the government would evacuate the town and rebuild it in a safer spot. Presumably, the plan was deemed too expensive — at least, that is, until the worst finally happened.
China’s implicit bargain with its citizens — obey your leaders and you, too, can enjoy the prosperity — is made explicit in New Beichuan, written in the city’s stone and steel. But how long will the bargain hold?
Qiang Rong was the only mourner I happened upon amid the tourists at the earthquake memorial. She was burning incense at one of the designated areas in the center of the old city to mark the death of her father, a villager who came to town on May 12 to file paperwork for his lumber business at one of the government bureaus. His matter was processed promptly in the morning, but he decided to stay for an afternoon mah-jongg game with friends. He called his wife back home to let her know, and told her that the ducks in the market looked great and he’d pick one up for dinner.
Qiang agreed to meet me a few days later in the provincial capital, Chengdu, where she worked in sales and marketing for an upscale hotel. When she arrived she was wearing a stylish blue dress and black high-heeled boots. We went to a fashionable teahouse not far from the city’s central plaza, Tianfu Square, which boasts a statue of Mao so large that it’s visible from the planes taking off at the local airport. Once we’d settled into a secluded booth, Qiang took out a pack of cigarettes and began to tell me the story of her life. She spent her childhood in a provincial village in Sichuan and, at eighteen, without a high-school diploma, moved to Shanghai. She landed a job in an electronics factory and lived in a workers’ dormitory, sending the bulk of her monthly paycheck home. Soon she was promoted to forewoman. At night, she taught herself about computers and quickly moved up to an office job in the company’s human resources department. After the earthquake, she returned to Sichuan to be closer to her widowed mother and found her current job in the hospitality industry.
It was as if Qiang had compressed three generations of social mobility into a single lifetime — and she was only in her thirties. Her possibilities seemed limitless, but at what cost?
She wasn’t inclined to speculate. When I tried to steer the conversation to the trade-offs inherent in the Chinese system, she expressed no malice toward the regime. “I think they did a very good job of rescuing people,” she told me between drags on her cigarette and sips of chrysanthemum tea. The rebuilding was clearly a priority for Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, she said, and she was confident that this remained the case for the current leader. “Xi Jinping has also visited,” she remarked.
When I first saw Qiang Rong at the ruins, she was wearing a formal red dress and torching an array of offerings. Traditional Chinese belief holds that burning large paper effigies of the possessions of the deceased eases their way to a prosperous afterlife. Qiang had brought a large stash of combustibles in a white Land Rover. After lighting several sticks of incense, she took out a boxed paper replica of a man’s dress shirt and tie and set it on fire. Then she began pulling out oversize copies of hundred-yuan notes. Called “hell money,” the replica bills help the deceased bribe the officials who rule the underworld.
The bills are pinkish-red and printed with the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square on the back and a portrait of Mao Zedong on the front. As Qiang dropped the bills into the incense stand and the flames consumed Mao’s face, she began to sob. It was the most fitting memorial for the dead that I saw at Beichuan.