Questions Over Quake Toll in Tibet

Even as search-and-rescue operations over the Qinghai earthquake enter their second week, question marks have been raised over the death toll – and Beijing's overall handling of the worst natural disaster to have hit China since the devastating Sichuan earthquake two years ago.

Tibetan lamas who are responsible for the burial of quake victims told reporters from several Hong Kong papers and TV stations that at least 8,000 Qinghai residents had perished. As of Monday night, however, the official death toll stood at 1,944 dead and 216 missing.

Since Yushu, the county worst hit by the tremors, is a predominantly Tibetan area, lamas from Qinghai and neighboring Tibet have been active in rescue work and particularly burial ceremonies. Senior Tibetan lama Angwen Danba Renqing told Hong Kong journalists that his monastery alone had by last Sunday cremated 3,400 corpses.

The lama said he knew of several hundred bodies being stowed in other monasteries. Angwen Danba Renqing reckoned the death toll for Yushu alone was "in the region of 8,000 to 9,000." Hong Kong's mass circulation Ming Pao also quoted an official from the People's Procuratorate as saying total casualties in Yushu could reach upwards of 10,000.

The real scale of the tragedy – and the fact that it has taken place close to the opening of the Shanghai World Expo on May 1 – probably explains why two members of the Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), Hu Jintao and Li Changchun, cut short their overseas visits to return to China.

Political sources in Beijing said the leadership's main concern is that the natural disaster not exacerbate ethnic tension in Tibet and Xinjiang. Discussion at the Politburo meeting convened on April 17 – four days after the quake – centered on confining the political fallout to Yushu and its immediate vicinity.

A brief report by the official Xinhua News Agency noted that the PBSC urged cadres from relevant departments "to boost efforts in defusing social contradictions, to strengthen work relating to law and order, to ensure social stability in the disaster zones, and to promote unity among the nationalities as well as stability among the people."

Perhaps with a view to curbing "social contradictions," the Party's Propaganda Department issued clear-cut instructions to major media on how to cover the disaster. The day after the quake, Chinese newspapers and websites were told to focus on "positive" developments, particularly how soldiers, cops, People's Armed Police, fire-fighters and other personnel Beijing has deployed to Qinghai have done a heroic job amidst low-oxygen and sub-zero conditions in the highlands.

Chinese media, however, are told to play down the helpful role played by lamas. In particular, no reference should be made to the dubious qualities of classroom and official buildings in Yushu. PBSC member Li, who is China's propaganda czar, was quoted by Xinhua as calling on the media to "assiduously sing the praises of advanced units and model individuals" who distinguished themselves in the rescue and reconstruction campaign.

"We must heap praise on the glories of the Communist Party, socialism, the reform enterprise, and the People's Liberation Army," Li said soon after returning to China from a European tour.

Despite the efforts taken by authorities to take good care of Tibetan survivors, many Yushu residents have complained about the haste with which authorities have disposed of the bodies through mass cremation. "Sky burial," an arcane ritual in which the corpse is dissected on hill-tops and then "cleaned" by birds of prey, has long been the preferred burial practice. Individual lamas have also asked Hong Kong and foreign reporters to relay their wish that Chinese authorities should speed up the repair and reconstruction of monasteries.

In the aftermath of the Sichuan Earthquake, in which some 70,000 perished, both Sichuan and central-level officials were criticized for covering up dozens of so-called tofu school buildings. These shoddily built classroom structures collapsed like jigsaw puzzles even as more sturdy buildings nearby sustained only superficial damage.

To this day, Beijing has refused to disclose either the number of students who died during the tremors or their names and other personal details. A number of NGO activists who helped aggrieved parents in Sichuan seek damages from the authorities, including globally known artist Ai Weiwei, have been detained or harassed by the authorities. Immediately after the Sichuan quake, Beijing pledged to check the structures of all school buildings nationwide and to do required reparations. The Chinese media, however, have reported that not a single school in Yushu County has been repaired or reinforced after the Sichuan disaster.