Chinese Quake Toll, 69,172, Is Just a Guess

Copyright The New York Times
June 18, 2008
SHANGHAI — For weeks after the devastating earthquake that struck Sichuan Province last month, the public grew accustomed to a grim daily ritual as the Chinese government provided precise daily updates on the rising numbers of dead and missing.
In the past few days, the updates have all but stopped, frozen for now with grim precision at the figure 69,172. Behind this seeming clarity, however, lies a far messier reality.
Officials involved in the data collection quietly acknowledge that the publicly available death toll is little more than a rough guess of the number of people killed in the May 12 earthquake.
In some ways, China’s response to the disaster was a break with past practices of secrecy and tight government control. Chinese journalists reported from the scene with unaccustomed freedom in the early days after the quake, and volunteer workers and donations poured into Sichuan Province from all over the country, as well as from abroad, demonstrating a kind of civic activism new to China.
In other respects, though, the crisis has revealed a country ill prepared for a major emergency, with an emergency response system unused to satisfying the public’s hunger for information.
Few matters highlighted these shortcomings more than the process of accounting for the dead and the missing. Methods of tallying the two categories varied widely from place to place. In some localities, the toll was ascertained through body counts, other direct physical evidence or witness accounts. In other areas, mostly guesswork prevailed.
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