China's focus turns on sleepy town of Jianli amid fevered response to cruise ship disaster

An influx of rescue workers, journalists and victims' relatives is putting the sleepy town of Jianli on the map in a way that lifelong resident Tao Gengsheng never thought he'd see.

As the closest town to the site of last week's Yangtze River cruise ship disaster, Jianli is the staging area for what began as a rescue effort and has now shifted to identifying the remains of more than 450 people aboard the Eastern Star, which capsized in a freak tornado. Just 14 people survived China's worst maritime disaster in nearly seven decades.

"I've never seen so much activity. And I've never seen so many foreigners," Tao tells an American journalist standing beside his cart laden with bananas, apples and melons.

Signs of the influx of aid are evident in the dozens of army trucks lined up along the embankment and the convoys heading to the riverbank where the bodies of those caught inside the four-deck vessel were being offloaded on Saturday. Individuals and groups looking to help, part of a wave of disaster volunteering that has arisen in recent years, have also flocked in to offer their services.

With a population of 1.5 million in the town and surrounding county, Jianli is fairly typical of China's fast-developing rural areas. Cars, buses, scooters and electric bicycles cruise slowly down the wide streets of the new town, honking at anything that moves. In the narrower lanes of the old town, recorded advertisements blare from shops selling off-brand clothing and electronics, while the musical styles of the many patrons of restaurant and guesthouse karaoke parlors assault the ears of passers-by.

"We've got a lot of history here, but we're a little behind and don't get many visitors," said taxi driver Cheng Lixiong.

That backward profile is gradually changing along with the economic growth gripping the Chinese countryside. Isolated and backward just a decade ago, Jianli, located in the central province of Hubei, is now just a 2 1/2-hour drive down a four-lane highway from the provincial capital of Wuhan, one of China's most important industrial centers.

An outdoor electronics mall already sells the latest iPhones, while advertisements for a soon-to-be built shopping mall promise a future Starbucks, a sign of how Western brands are moving into China's smaller cities after conquering the major metropolitan areas.

Small-town traditions mix with trends of the future. In the town center, couples gather in Yusha Square for nighttime ballroom dancing alfresco, while on the outskirts, lonely high-rise apartment buildings jut out of rice fields in one of China's most important agricultural regions.

By all available measures, Jianli has risen to the challenge of dealing with the catastrophe, mobilizing resources and volunteers to aid in the rescue and recovery. Taxi drivers have waived fares for journalists and aid workers, and hotels are offering free rooms and meals. While local governments are not known to be friendly to outside journalists, a downtown hotel has been designated as the media center for the dozens of foreign and Chinese reporters who've flocked to the scene.

The head of the county government, Xu Zhen, recalls how within hours of the capsizing late last Monday, officials began organizing boats to scour the river's surface for survivors and for medical, security, engineering and other teams to start work at first light.

"Jianli is part of the great Chinese family and it is our responsibility to do the very best we can in this difficult time," Xu said.

A Jianli county public works bureau worker, who like many Chinese bureaucrats would give only his surname, Huang, said he felt it was his responsibility to help with a group of eight from Shanghai who'd lost relatives in the sinking. He picked them up from the train station in his car, drove them to a hotel, then a clinic to provide a DNA sample to help with identifying their loved ones, and finally to dinner.

"We're here to help them for as long as we're needed," said Huang. "Our offices have given us all the leave we need to make them feel at ease."

Xu says the town's biggest challenge now is housing and caring for the estimated 2,500 grief-stricken relatives, some of whom may be put up in private homes because of a shortage of hotel rooms. The town has pledged to provide at least one volunteer per victim's family member to help with transport and accommodation and provide emotional support.

Residents seem proud to be able to help, recalling the assistance they received during floods that devastated Yangtze River towns in the summer of 1998.

"I've really been deeply touched by the deeds done by local residents," said a hotel clerk who gave only his surname, Lei. "I feel proud of them, it's positive energy — I think in the future, young people will learn from them."