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For China's local officials, a new test

Traditionally dismissed as do-nothing, often-corrupt paper pushers, local functionaries are now bearing the responsibility for keeping people safe following China's earthquake, anticipating their needs and getting real answers to their questions.
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Eleven thousand people were ordered to evacuate to this mountain slope in a matter of hours on Friday. With floodwaters to be diverted through the valley below, it was Shen Yuanfeng's job to make sure those from her community settled in safely.

Shen, who worked as a government administrator of her neighborhood before the quake, walked a field that was sprouting thousands of tents, looking for problems. Just as she stopped one newly arriving family from pushing their way into another's tent, her cellphone rang. She was putting the phone to her ear when a woman ran up. "An old person just arrived and they don't look so good. Do something!"

Shen rushed off with the woman, the cellphone still glued to her ear.

Traditionally dismissed as do-nothing, often-corrupt paper pushers, local functionaries are now bearing the responsibility for keeping people safe following this month's earthquake, anticipating their needs and getting real answers to their questions. Their role has been striking in a country where the Communist Party's vow to "serve the people" has long been regarded by many as an empty slogan.

"Before, I never paid attention to government performance," Ma Yanqun, a 32-year-old evacuee said as she sat on a plastic stool looking out over the Fujian River, waiting for its waters to rise. "Now, there are cadres digging toilets. I think they're doing a really good job."

Millions of Chinese lives have been thrown into chaos by the May 12 earthquake, its hundreds of aftershocks and now a planned flood to ease pressure on a damaged dam. On Friday, Sichuan provincial authorities ordered the evacuation of at least 40,000 more people from the path of the planned flood, bringing the total evacuated to just under 200,000 and straining local bureaucrats, who have been thrust to front lines of emergency rescue in the biggest natural disaster in a generation.

Government propaganda has unceasingly told people in the quake zone to "trust the government" in how it manages the aftermath of the earthquake, which has left 80,000 dead or missing. Many here in Mianyang city have little choice. They have lost loved ones, homes and livelihoods.

But for their faith in government to endure, local officials must deliver on the promise that people will be taken care of.

"I feel so much pressure on my shoulders," Zhao Yuanxiu said as she stood next to her own makeshift tent along the evacuation route, pitched on a bluff overlooking the river. Before the earthquake, Zhao compiled labor statistics for the Fucheng district government. Now, she assembles with other government employees in front of the town hall at 8 every morning to get a mission for the day. On Thursday, it was to give out guidelines about the Tangjiashan Lake evacuation. On other days, it is to distribute food or answer relief questions.

The worst for her is when she doesn't have answers -- not for those who ask or for herself. "People ask me every day, 'When and how will the government help us rebuild our houses? What is the government's policy? What should we do next?' Those questions I cannot answer because I haven't gotten an answer," Zhao said.

Zhao knows how the anxiety gnaws. Her 70-year-old mother-in-law despairs of being able to pay her granddaughter's school tuition, now that her home and farm were destroyed in the quake. The mother-in-law, Jiang Changying, has taken care of the 10-year-old girl since she was 3 and her father and mother, Zhao's sister, left Sichuan as migrant workers.

"It's going to be really miserable," Jiang said. "I have no money and no house."

The government in Beijing and private donors are sending billions of dollars of aid and reconstruction cash into the province, and that sets up another challenge for local officials: resisting temptations to take for themselves, temptations to which many before have succumbed.

"Rebuilding after the earthquake could be a turning point for local government's image," said Ren Jianming, a professor at the School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University. "Corruption so easily happens and used to happen so much."

More than 300 auditors have been dispatched to Sichuan to watch over the spending, and national officials vow to be merciless with those caught stealing or taking bribes to allow substandard materials to be used in rebuilding. Local officials are being blamed by parents of the estimated 9,000 schoolchildren who died when their classrooms collapsed around them during the earthquake, burying them in the rubble. The parents allege that corrupt officials turned a blind eye to safety.

Mao Shoulong, a professor of public administration at Renmin University, said holding individuals responsible for failures helps build public trust. "The education department is not corrupted, but there may be a corrupt education department official," Mao said. "The responsibilities of collapsed school buildings should be specified and allocated to individuals."

Local Communist Party officials are attempting to underscore that sense of personal responsibility as they manage the flood evacuation. Yang Zhumei, an official with Fucheng district's foreign affairs office, was handing out Communist Party lapel pins to identify all members as the district's command center was evacuating its equipment and personnel to the mountains.

"Communist Party members are on the front lines," she said, as she attached her own pin. "People will watch you. You have to help other people. You have to be responsible."

The evacuation, which has been taking place in stages over the past several days, threatened to create havoc in Mianyang city, located north of the provincial capital of Chengdu. One man said he did not think twice, just grabbed a quilt and a tarp and ran to his evacuation point about 20 minutes up a hill from his village, when he got his notice on May 22. "They said the flood could come anytime," said the man, who would not give his name.

In recent days, local officials have been more measured and informed when they tell people they have to leave. Luo Yuhua, 77, sat calmly Thursday afternoon under a leaking tarp strung between bamboo poles along a main highway, fingering the evacuation notice she had just been handed.

"The government told me a tent has been set up over the mountain and they have prepared sausages, noodles and rice," she said. She was told that she did not have to leave right away but that someone on a motorbike would ride up the highway banging a gong when the time came to go, signaling it would be four or five hours before the floodwaters reached her area in Longmen town.

Luo had every confidence she would not be left behind to face the flood. "The government can control this," she said.

Cheng Ju, 34, a reserve soldier guarding a path to a low-lying village to prevent children and the elderly from entering a danger zone, said the motto of his unit is "Leave the small family, take care of the big family."

Shen, the community administrator, knows what he means. "I never had time to take care of my family" after the earthquake, she said, pausing. "When I say that I want to cry."

Zhao also feels the stress. Her one comfort is that when she returns home to her family's tarp each night, her husband brings her a basin of fresh water to wash her face and feet. She said: "I am very touched by that."

Researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.