Zhu Jinqiang, China's celebrity earthquake pig, exposes sensitivities
SICHUAN, China – This was supposed to be a feel-good story about a pig that became a national icon after it survived a devastating earthquake 10 years ago in China's southwestern province of Sichuan.
But the local public security bureau had a different idea: 3 plainclothes officers stopped AFP journalists from completing their reporting and escorted them out of the museum.
The heavy police presence shows how sensitive the earthquake remains 10 years after the massive temblor 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 world 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 he was discovered alive beneath rubble, 36 days after the 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck Sichuan province on May 12, 2008.
The response became a source of national pride as the country's military and charitable organizations rushed to help survivors, and Zhu Jianqiang became a symbol of resilience.
He survived on rainwater and a bag of charcoal during his ordeal and was sold to the Jianchuan Museum – a cluster of exhibition halls devoted to recent Chinese history – which agreed to nurture him for the rest of his life as a reminder of the nation overcoming adversity.
But in a country where it is illegal to disparage national heroes, even a famous pig can become a sensitive subject.
Indomitable will to live
As the 10th anniversary of the earthquake approaches, foreign reporters seeking to interview 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 center and then accompanied them on a small tram to see Zhu, whose massive bulk was draped across a pile of hay inside a glass enclosure.
His front legs were injured during the earthquake, and he has difficulty standing.
The problem nearly cost him his life, according to a recent Chinese media report, which said Zhu was on his last legs after he had become too fat to stand.
But a diet – and his indomitable will to live – got him back on his feet.
At the ripe old age of 11 – over 80 in human years – he spends more than 20 hours a day sleeping, rising in the afternoon for the first of two daily feedings.
As his keeper, Gong Guocheng, entered the pen with a bucket of slop, the determination that earned Zhu his name was on full display: as he struggled to stand, he unleashed a series of agonized shrieks, terrifying a group of schoolchildren.
But soon enough he was ambling amiably through a nearby orchard, snuffling through the fallen fruit and letting visitors pet him.
"It's Zhu Jianqiang!" an elderly tourist shouted as the hog lumbered across the pavement back to his pen.
"It can't be him, I heard he's dead," his wife said dismissively.
As an AFP reporter tried to chat with visitors, 3 plainclothes police stopped the interview and began questioning the journalists about their plans for covering the earthquake's 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.
As the police tussled with journalists, a man visiting the museum with his parents, watched Zhu tottering among the students: "He's a symbol of China's strength." – Rappler.com