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China builds hope from rubble

  Eighty seconds of shaking, China’s devastating earthquake earlier this year cut a swathe of death and destruction through remote hilly towns.

In a recovery that will take years, the whole country’s prosperity is at stake. Quake reconstruction is a central plank of the government’s stimulus plan for the ailing Chinese economy, set to take one-quarter of Beijing’s promised CNY 4 trillion (4 trillion yuan - $580 billion) spending boost and to create millions of sorely needed jobs.

Already, the disaster zone has been transformed into a vast, manic construction site, a trail of bricks, steel and cement coursing through its heart, those made homeless hammering away to reverse their fate and entrepreneurs from far-flung corners of the country attracted by the whiff of profit in calamity.

“I’ve been doing this job for about 20 years and I’ve never seen things so busy,” said Zhao Renjun, bending steel girders into shape on a construction site in Anxian county, part of the huge area rocked by the May 12 earthquake that killed more than 80,000 people in China’s southwest. “I haven’t had time to fix my own house. I’ve been so busy working for others,” he said.

A partial list of needs includes 4.5 million homes, 51,000 km of roads and 5,500 km of railways — enough to occupy at least some of the 20 million people who could lose jobs in China’s once-humming export factories hit by the global slowdown. “Because everyone is building, prices for materials have shot up,” said Liu Siyin, 34, taking a break from hauling buckets of cement on a shoulder pole at his quake-damaged home.

However, a degree of price increases is exactly what the government wants. As with the stimulus package for the wider economy, Beijing is providing a huge pot of cash to kick off quake reconstruction but expects to lure private businesses into the fold, to have the investment momentum spread more widely.

A profit-chasing zeal has already been unleashed. Piles of bricks, bundles of steel girders, wood boards and small concrete mixers — all for sale — line the narrow highways in the disaster zone, many in front of makeshift shops set up by entrepreneurs from Chongqing, a huge city 350 km to the east.

Getting it right in the quake zone is a critical part of China’s bigger plan for reviving its economy. The torrent of investment flowing towards reconstruction and the country’s interior more broadly should transform inland provinces into China’s growth engine in 2009, as the coastal factories that have long propelled the country struggle, Standard Chartered Bank economists say. (Reuters)