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China quake toll rises to 615; muddy noodles open army to scrutiny

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 U.S. 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.

The media scrutiny seems to have pushed the Chinese military to step up its efforts to provide supplies to the rescue forces. Yang Bo, who is in charge of Yunnan paramilitary’s supplies, told the New China News Agency that water purifiers were put in place on Wednesday and that the shortage of drinking water was resolved. He also promised to bring in trucks with frozen food, water and shower capabilities. “We’ll try to get the soldiers to be take hot water showers within three days,” Yang said.

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

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