China is investing almost US$15 million this year to more than double the size of its international search and rescue squad.
The move follows 2008’s devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province, which left an estimated 90,000 dead or missing.
“We will be able to send more teams to operations overseas and that’s one of the reasons we are expanding,” Huang Jianfa (黃建發), a division director at the Chinese Earthquake Administration, said on Friday.
While critics say China is not taking on responsibilities to match its greater role in the world, Beijing points to contributions such as its increased commitment to UN peacekeeping forces and its help in international disasters.
The rescue squad, founded in 2001, sent 60 members to Haiti last month.
China will inject 100 million yuan (US$14.6 million) to increase the team’s numbers from 220 to 500 by year’s end, Huang said.
Another 5,000 rescue workers belong to purely domestic teams around China, but train at the squad’s center northwest of Beijing. There they conduct exercises in a simulated disaster zone that are an eery echo of real tragedies: Sniffer dogs scrabble over collapsed buildings and rescuers call out to potential survivors. Others descend from tilting apartment blocks, with plastic “children” strapped to their backs.
Liu Xiangyang (劉向陽), who commands the rescue corps, said: “I believe this is good for [how people perceive] China. In the past what we gave was food and materials — now we can save lives, and life is the most precious thing of all.”
But he added: “The pressure is bigger on overseas jobs. Most of our team speak English, but sometimes the locals do not, so it’s very difficult to understand how deeply people are buried or how badly they are injured.”
The team also includes 20 paramedics and specialists in building structures.
State media reported that 29 people were injured in a 5.1-magnitude quake in southwestern Yunnan Province on Friday.