Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

By Los Angeles Times staff

BEIJING — It was framed as a feel-good story about the sacrifice and toughness of Chinese soldiers: Troops who rushed to the site of a deadly earthquake in the southern province of Yunnan resorted to using muddy water to boil their instant noodles in the disaster zone. But the photo-op has turned into a heated public debate over the preparedness of the Chinese military.

The death toll from Sunday’s magnitude 6.5 temblor reached 615 on Thursday, with hope waning of finding more survivors. Soldiers from Yunnan’s paramilitary forces have been on the front lines of the rescue effort, leaving their barracks just 10 minutes after the quake struck, the official New China News Agency said.

In China, military forces are usually the first responders to natural disasters such as an earthquake or a flood. The Chinese military has deployed more than 7,900 soldiers in the disaster relief efforts for the Yunnan earthquake.

After almost 22 hours of marching to reach the disaster zone (roads in the area were impassable) and rescuing victims from the rubble, the tired soldiers gathered Tuesday afternoon for their first hot meal at a school in Longtoushan town, the hardest-hit area. With each soldier holding a disposable purple bowl of instant noodles, everyone looked happy in the pictures snapped by reporters from state-run China National Radio and posted on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social network.

But there was one problem: The water in the giant wok in front of them was filled with brownish, muddy water.

“Instant noodles became the only food available at Longquan Middle School in the epicenter. Underground water became muddy because of the earthquake. The rescue staff can only use the muddy water to boil noodles,” China National Radio’s Weibo account informed readers.

Though the pictures moved some members of the public, who were impressed by the hard work of the soldiers and difficulties they had to endure, others began to question the readiness of the rescue team. Critics said the troops knew before they set out for the disaster zone that they would be going into an area where basic resources such as water would be limited.

“What happens if they get sick? That will definitely hurt their rescue efforts,” asked Fan Jianchuan, who owns a museum complex in Sichuan province and once taught at a military college.
“Where’s their water purifier? Please don’t tell me they left in a rush. The army is built to respond to emergencies. What happens if the enemy launches a surprise attack?”

Others went as far as to dig out some old press clippings in which the Chinese military said it was fully equipped to provide clean water in the wild to its soldiers. On March 30, 2004, the official People’s Liberation Army Daily ran a story saying that a new type of portable water purifier had been successfully developed and was capable of providing nearly 40 gallons of clean water each hour.

Backed by a booming economy, China’s government has made expanding its military strength a priority. The nation’s defense budget had seen double-digit growth for two decades, but the country still spends less than 30 percent of what the United States does.

After taking over as the Communist Party’s top leader in late 2012, Xi Jinping spent his first four months “inspecting the army, navy, air force, second artillery corps, and armed police, boarding warships and combat vehicles,” the official New China News agency reported. “The armed forces need to be ready to assemble at the first call of the Communist Party and be capable of fighting and winning any battle,” Xi said while inspecting the Lanzhou Military Area.

With this week’s backlash over the muddy water photos mounting on Chinese social media, the nationalistic Global Times came out with an article asserting that the story was fake. “It is not true that soldiers are using muddy water to boil noodles; please do not believe in such stories that can hurt the morale of our soldiers on the frontline,” the article said.

The story quoted an unnamed official, said to be in charge of the rescue forces, saying the incident didn’t happen and it was not logical for the rescue forces to do such a thing. “No matter who boils water, they’ll always try to use water that is clean,” said the official.

But journalists from China National Radio who witnessed the whole process stood by their reporting — even posting a video proving the soldiers indeed used muddy water to boil noodles on their first day in the quake zone.

Global Times was forced to remove its story, and the editor responsible issued an apology through his personal Weibo account.

Los Angeles Times staff writer Julie Makinen and Tommy Yang in the Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

AFP Photo

Interested in world news? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

Poll: Most Parents Oppose Rapid School Reopening

Numerous local school systems around the country are plowing ahead with plans to resume in-person instruction despite growing evidence that children are just as capable of spreading the coronavirus as adults.

Classes were set to begin on Monday in Baker County, Florida. Masks for students will be optional, not required. "It looks like it's back to normal this morning, honestly," a local television reporter observed as parents dropped their kids off in the morning. Many students wore no face coverings.

The Trump administration and the GOP have pushed for full reopening of schools for months."Schools in our country should be opened ASAP," Donald Trump tweeted in May. "Much very good information now available."

"SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!" he reiterated on July 6.

"The science and data is clear: children can be safe in schools this fall, and they must be in school this fall," demanded Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) on Aug. 1.

"I believe our schools can, and should rise to the occasion of re-opening for in-person education this fall," agreed Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) two days later.

"The CDC and Academy of Pediatrics agree: We can safely get students back in classrooms," tweeted House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) last Tuesday.

But while Scalise, Mike Pence, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have all cited the American Academy of Pediatrics in their arguments for reopening, a new study by the group and the Children's Hospital Association raises red flags about how safe that will be.

Their report found 338,982 reported coronavirus cases in children as of July 30 in the United States. Between July 16 and July 30, the nation saw a 40% increase — 97,078 new infected children.

Last week, a high school student in an Atlanta suburb posted a photo online showing few students wearing masks in a crowded school hallway. Since that time, at least six students and three adult employees in the school have reportedly contracted the coronavirus, and the school temporarily has switched to online classes.

Another Georgia school district has already seen at least 13 students and staff members test positive since reopening a week ago.

A recent study in South Korea found that children aged ten and older spread the coronavirus at the same rates adults do. A separate study in Chicago suggested young kids might also be effective spreaders.

These contradict the false claims made by Trump and his administration that kids have an "amazing" near immunity to COVID-19.

"If you look at children, children are almost — and I would almost say definitely, but almost immune from this disease, so few. They've got stronger, hard to believe, and I don't know how you feel about it, but they have much stronger immune systems than we do somehow for this," Trump told Fox News on Wednesday.

"You got to open the schools. They have a stronger immune system even than you have or I have," he told Barstool Sports on July 23. "It's amazing. You look at the percentage, it's a tiny percentage of one percent. And in that one case, I mean, I looked at a couple of cases. If you have diabetes, if you have, you know, problems with something, but the kids are in great shape." Children have made up nearly nine percent of all cases, even with schools mostly closed.

And DeVos incorrectly said in a July 16 interview, "More and more studies show that kids are actually stoppers of the disease and they don't get it and transmit it themselves."

In early July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines for how schools could operate more safely during the pandemic.

Trump publicly ridiculed the guidelines, dismissing them as "very tough & expensive" and "very impractical."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.