Massive recovery churns in China

The streets here are alive with the sounds – rumbling backhoes, roaring jackhammers, clanging pickaxes – of a town being brought back from the dead.

The 7.9-magnitude earthquake that tore apart Sichuan province in May left the town of Yingxiu in near-silent ruin. Two months later, it is buzzing with activity as soldiers dig trenches for water pipes and temporary housing units rise practically overnight.

It is a remarkable turnaround from a disaster that left nearly 70,000 dead, another 18,000 missing and more than 5 million homeless. As with next month's Olympic Games, the Chinese government pumped money and manpower into earthquake recovery as a matter of national pride and unity.

Knowing their legitimacy rests partly on the ability to deliver in times of crisis, China's communist leadership mobilized 130,000 troops and legions of migrant workers.

In late May, Premier Wen Jiabao stood on this battered spot and pledged to rebuild quake-hit areas in three years. China set up a $10 billion reconstruction fund – compared with the $40 billion spent on the Olympics – slashing budgets across the board to pay for it.

Survivors throughout the region seem genuinely grateful and say they don't want their suffering to detract from the Olympics. At the entrance to Yingxiu, a red banner strung across a section of crumbled highway reads: “Go Olympics, Go Sichuan, Go Wenchuan.”

Nestled in a valley surrounded by green hills, Yingxiu township in Wenchuan county was right at the quake's epicenter. More than three-quarters of its 12,000 residents perished. With roads cut off, survivors were evacuated by boat or helicopter.

Today, the wrecked shell of the town's high school, where hundreds of students died, serves as a reminder of the losses. An altar at a mass grave is piled high with wreaths and incense.

And aftershocks have continued: Three tremors between 4.9 to 6.0 in magnitude jolted parts of Sichuan and Shaanxi provinces Thursday, killing one and injuring at least 10.

Across the river, the remains of factories, shops and homes rise like matchsticks from the rubble. A slight stench still fills the air, and teams of soldiers constantly spray disinfectant throughout the town.

“In the beginning, I felt very heavy-hearted. I was worried. What if no one takes care of us because it's so remote here and transport is so hard? But the soldiers came. I think they've done a good job,” said Liu Shuping, a 53-year-old steel worker who cradled his granddaughter in his arms. His wife and daughter survived, but his son-in-law did not.

An influx of 2,000 soldiers and another 1,500 construction workers from southern Guangdong province ensured fast construction of barracks-style housing, said Xu Hongjun, the town's Communist Party deputy secretary.

In the quake-hit city of Dujiangyan, T-shirts with “Go China” on the front and the Olympic torch on the back flew off the racks in the weeks after the quake, said shopkeeper Qin Ye, 26.

At a temporary settlement outside Dujiangyan, earthquake survivor He Zichun, 39, recalled how he celebrated with friends in the street when Beijing was named host of this year's Olympics.

“I support the government and I support the Olympics,” he said, sporting a pair of shorts with the Olympic rings logo.

“Though they invested a lot there, they also helped us. These games are a matter of national pride for us.”

The Olympic torch was scheduled to pass through Sichuan in mid-June, but it was rerouted after the earthquake. Now, Sichuan will be the final stop for the torch before it returns to Beijing for the opening of the Olympics on Aug. 8.