Two years on, allegations of local-level corruption taint the successful reconstruction effort.
The buildings are freshly painted, in gleaming blues and reds. The city centre, once a pile of rubble, stands newly built, with the broad pavements and perfectly-cropped trees that are a trademark of the dozens of almost identical new towns that seem to spring up every week in rural China.
Wenchuan, however, is no ordinary town. Two years ago this week, it was the centre of a devastating earthquake that left more than 80,000 people dead as schools, hospitals and homes were reduced to rubble.
On May 12, 2008 the city became the symbol of not just a massive tragedy but of an event that stirred national consciousness and mobilised China in a manner rarely seen in its recent history.
Donations poured in by the billions, tributes were held almost daily in every Chinese city and all of China's leaders visited this remote town to pay their respects.
Two years on, China's official media are glowingly celebrating the massive recovery effort. Wenchuan's residents, however, are not joining in.
In the town and its surrounding villages, dozens of residents said in recent interviews that many still have not received promised compensations. Farmers are fighting to hold on to their land, facing growing pressure from development projects and unable to sustain their livelihoods. As China celebrates Sichuan's rebuilding this week, their stories find little mention.
“We have not seen a single cent of all the millions that everyone is talking about,” said Zhang Yi, a farmer in her fifties in the village of Yanmen just north of Wenchuan. “Everyone is talking about the rebuilding. Why isn't anyone talking about the corruption?”
Five others stood by her side in the village square, all waiting to have their stories told in spite of standing instructions from local authorities to not speak to journalists.
Many farmers allege the compensation they received was far less than what was initially promised. Unable to complete the rebuilding of their homes, most have sold their farming land. “We have new homes, but no jobs,” said one farmer reluctant to give his name.
Allegations of corruption are widespread in quake-hit Sichuan. Many say the billions of Yuan promised in donations have not reached the villages. “Forget the projects. Here, without guanxi [connections], you can't even find a job in a shop,” the farmer said. He and his wife now work as sweepers, earning 20 Yuan (Rs.140) a day. Their two sons, in their early 20s, sit idly at home unable to find work.
The litany of complaints Wenchuan's residents has underscore the often wide gap between central policies and their implementation. In Yanmen, the villagers blamed corruption among local officials, accusing them of pocketing reconstruction funds; yet reserved praised for Beijing, and in particular Premier Wen Jiabao, for visiting the villages. In reality, they have few means of redressal. “We have not even seen our local Party chief in weeks,” said one villager. “So who do we turn to?”
Many in Wenchuan lost their only child in the earthquake as poorly built schools collapsed even as other buildings withstood the impact, leaving at least 5,300 children dead. Residents have been calling on Beijing to conduct a public inquiry into allegations of corruption in the construction of shoddy schools. This week, Beijing-based artist Ai Weiwei organised an online protest, reading out the names of all the children who died in the earthquake. “The real causes of the students' deaths, their names and how they died have still not emerged,” he told Agence France-Presse in an interview.
The devastating earthquake no doubt gave the local government an enormous rebuilding task. But Wenchuan's residents say that amid the grand celebrations this week, their grievances are being left unheard. “You see those buildings there,” said one resident, pointing to a newly built apartment block. “It's all for show. There's nothing inside them. Once the leaders come and leave, the buildings will still remain empty, and then everyone will forget.”