LONGTOUSHAN, Yunnan, Aug. 5 -- Residents in Ludian County, where the earthquake on Sunday killed over 400 people, knew there would be an earthquake sooner or later.
The county in the southwestern province of Yunnan sits at an active earthquake belt. In the same city, an earthquake two years ago left nearly 100 people dead. Most victims of both earthquakes died under collapsed houses.
In Longtoushan Town, the earthquake's epicenter, 6 buildings stand alone beside a swamp of rubble. The houses were constructed with earthquake resistant designs.
Local officials have been advocating the use of such designs. But for average Ludian farmers, who make less than 700 U.S. dollars a year, the price tag of 20,000 dollars or more for earthquake resistant construction is unreachable.
Zhao Mingwang, a farmer in Cuiping Village, earned 1,100 dollars last year through farming and physical labor. His house collapsed. But even that house, without earthquake resistant designs, had cost all of his savings and left him in debt more than 10,000 dollars.
Nearly 60 percent of Ludian farmers live on less than 1 dollar per day. They can only afford to live in houses built with mud clay.
Zhaotong City, administrator of Ludian, can do little to accommodate the needs of its 4 million farmers with a total annual budget of 4 billion U.S. dollars.
To give those occupying earthquake zones a better standard of living, the world's second largest economy still has a long way to go.
Last year, Chinese urban residents made 4,500 dollars annually on average while rural populations earned one third of what urban Chinese did.
According to a national plan aiming to improve earthquake defense, the Chinese government vowed to make buildings in most urban areas resistant to 6.0 magnitude earthquakes.
"But in Yunnan, especially in remote areas, most infrastructure facilities and residential buildings are not resistant to earthquakes," said Zhang Junwei, director of earthquake prevention office, Yunnan Earthquake Administration.
In the populous southwest China, millions of poor farmers live deep in mountains and isolated valleys. Yunnan's GDP per capita in 2013 was three fifths of the national average and one fourth of Shanghai's.
The development gap between urban and rural areas can also be blamed.
Few buildings in Ludian County's downtown area were damaged by the earthquake, while miles of houses collapsed in surrounding villages. Losses in rural areas accounted for about 80 percent of all casualties caused by earthquakes in the last 5 years, according to the Yunnan Housing and Urban-Rural Development Department.
Local officials have been calling for fiscal support to make buildings in poor areas more resistant to earthquakes.
In local Longquan Middle School, a building without earthquake proof design, collapsed. But two others, financed by special government funds and built with such designs, received only minor cracks.
The transforming landscape of China's economy may fundamentally reduce earthquake damage in southwest China.
Surging labor costs and pollution in east China make west China a preferable alternative. Multinational corporations are moving their factories to the West from powerhouse provinces such as Guangdong and Jiangsu.
Every west China province recorded higher GDP growth than the national average of 7.5 percent last year. Chengdu, capital city of Sichuan Province, attracted half of the Fortune 500 companies to set-up branches there.
The "Silk Road Economic Belt", the government's new strategy of integrating west China with the global economy, is also regarded as a critical step to further spur the West's economic growth.
Meanwhile, the Communist Party of China has promised to ensure farmers benefit equally from China's modernization in a conference that set the tone for reforms in the next decade.
The State Council last week removed the dual urban-rural household registration system, clearing way to help migrant workers settle in towns and cities.