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One year on, quake zone officials find breaking point
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13:27, April 22, 2009

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The publicity department of Beichuan is bustling with activity, as it has been for most of the last year.

The staff have worked relentlessly since the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, pumping a constant supply of information to the media.

However, one office remains eerily calm -- recently delivered documents and papers lie undisturbed on the desk alongside a photo of a young boy.

The empty chair belongs to department vice-director Feng Xiang, and on this matter the publicity officials have little to say.

Feng, 33, committed suicide at his home on Monday, three weeks before the first anniversary of his son's death on May 12.

The 7-year-old, whose body was never found, was among the 87,000 people who were confirmed dead or missing. Another 370,000 people were injured, and at least 15 million people were displaced.

The police are still officially investigating Feng's death, but many local officials say he was under too much pressure.

"His death saddens me," says Zhao Wu, a vice-director of publicity in Dujiangyan city, near the Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu, "but it is not surprising. There could be more tragedies like this."

Immediately prior to his suicide, Feng had finished compiling a commemorative book on earthquake relief and reconstruction of Beichuan.

The approach to May 12 has been "extremely sensitive", says Jia Xiaoming, a Beijing-based psychologist. "Local officials are unleashing their restrained grief a year after losing their loved ones, a feeling that could destroy the purpose of life."

Jia says officials had to set aside their own grief at losing family, leaving themselves with much less time to recover than ordinary people. "They missed the opportunities to let go of their feelings more naturally."

The hard work and dedication they have shown since the quake are no remedies for psychological trauma, says Jia.

Li Minghong, Communist Party head of Caoshan village of Beichuan County, says work has been stressful.

"You face pressure both from the general public and supervisors," says Li, who lost his 17-year-old daughter in the quake. "Officials who lost their families, children in particular, feel even more pressured psychologically when they cannot share their grief with others."

Other officials took their own lives before Feng. Dong Yufei, an acquaintance of Feng, hanged himself in a temporary office in October. Beichuan's agriculture commission head and disaster relief director lost his 12-year-old son and other relatives in the quake.

Sichuan provincial government has compelled officials in quake-affected areas to take vacations.

"Do Saturdays and Sundays exist on your calendar?" asks Feng's colleague, Ma Haiyan, when asked if he has taken days off.

"I have been too busy to have a vacation," says Wu Kaiming, director of the publicity department of Wenchuan County.

"Even if I did take days off, my mind would be filled with agendas for today and tomorrow," he says. "I'm better off staying in the office."

Wu admits his stress is often vented in quarrels with his wife.

Zhang Tongrong recalls how he was unable to visit his father before he died of liver cancer.

"I can't behave like this in public," says Zhang, vice Party chief of Wenchuan, visibly upset. "I must show my strength and trustworthiness to the people."

The welfare of local officials deserves more care and attention as it significantly affects reconstruction, says Xu Kaiwen, a psychologist with Beijing University.

"There is always a limit to how much pressure or how serious a psychological trauma one can stand," says Xu. "A glass can be big or small, but if the water keeps pouring in, it will overflow eventually. Grassroots officials are among those under the most pressure. This could cause problems if they get no help.

"Their psychological condition will directly affect the efficiency and effect of policies made at higher levels," warns Xu, who has been researching trauma after the Tangshan Earthquake, which killed more than 242,000 people on July 28, 1976.

Xu says sustainable and reliable psychological aid should be provided to local officials. "Ideally doctors should regularly meet their patients, help them feel assured and repair parts of their relations with others."

Wu Kaiming hopes he and his colleagues can relax a while after the first anniversary.

"But I really doubt it. The reconstruction does not allow us to stop for a rest. Time waits for nobody."


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