Pig survivor hogs limelight amid sensitivity over Sichuan quake

Zhu Jianqiang the pig with visitors at a museum in Anren, China, on April 25. The sow became a national icon after surviving a devastating earthquake 10 years ago in Sichuan province. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

ANREN (China) • This was supposed to be a feel-good story about a pig that became a national icon after surviving a devastating earthquake 10 years ago in China's south-western province of Sichuan.

However, the local public security bureau had a different idea: Three plain-clothes officers stopped Agence France-Presse journalists from completing their reporting and escorted them out of the museum where the sow is living out her days.

The heavy police presence shows how sensitive the tragedy remains 10 years after the massive quake left 87,000 dead or missing, including thousands of children killed in the collapse of what many believe were shoddily built schools.

In the years after, the government - which has never released an official investigation into the accusations - silenced those who tried to shed light on the catastrophe, including renowned artist Ai Weiwei, who was detained for months and beaten by police.

The pig, known as Zhu Jianqiang, which means "strong pig", shot to fame after being discovered alive beneath rubble, 36 days after the 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck Sichuan province on May 12, 2008.

She survived on rainwater and a bag of charcoal during the ordeal and was sold to the Jianchuan Museum - a cluster of exhibition halls devoted to recent Chinese history - which agreed to nurture her for the rest of her life as a reminder of the nation overcoming adversity.

While some aspects of the earthquake remain highly sensitive, the authorities warmly welcomed reporters interested in writing uplifting stories about the success of reconstruction or survivors' resilience.

Still, as the 10th anniversary of the earthquake approached, foreign reporters seeking to report on Zhu had to file a formal request with the provincial government.

On a recent visit, a team of media officials met a group of foreign and domestic journalists at the museum's visitor centre and then accompanied them on a small tram to see Zhu, which is at a ripe old age of 11 , and whose massive bulk was draped across a pile of hay inside a glass enclosure.

Her front legs were injured during the earthquake, and she has difficulty standing. But a diet - and an indomitable will to live - got her back on her feet.

As her keeper Gong Guocheng entered the pen with a bucket of slop, the determination that earned Zhu her name was on full display: As she struggled to stand, she unleashed a series of agonised shrieks, terrifying a group of schoolchildren.

But soon enough, she was ambling amiably through a nearby orchard, snuffling through the fallen fruit and letting visitors pet her.

However, as an AFP reporter tried to chat with visitors, three plain-clothes police officers stopped the interview and began questioning the journalists about their plans for covering the earthquake anniversary, before escorting them out of the museum.

The officers, who repeatedly refused to give their names, then followed AFP reporters to the town's border in an unmarked car.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE .

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 12, 2018, with the headline 'Pig survivor hogs limelight amid sensitivity over Sichuan quake'. Print Edition | Subscribe