Celluloid soldiers on a PR exercise

John Garnaut
May 17, 2008
 

SOME parts of China's communist past are not so easy to remove, like the official performance culture, where great presentations are made for the benefit of leaders without considering the public they are supposed to serve.

In the disaster zone of Beichuan on Wednesday afternoon thousands of troops were sitting around in trucks or loitering above the city as survivors were wailing from underneath boulders and inside buildings.

# That morning, a Chinese journalist in the back of a minivan had slipped past a roadblock and watched the Premier, Wen Jiabao, address a crowd of rescuers. At 10.11am he snapped a picture of a group of soldiers running and jostling between Mr Wen and the state television cameras in an apparent rush to get to some emergency. But the soldiers were going nowhere in particular and certainly had no need to choose that route.

The reporter then climbed down through the rubble of a landslide to the devastated Beichuan city to find dozens of soldiers performing another show of purposeless action. "A crowd of soldiers was busily doing things in view of a video camera," the reporter says. "On the other side of the river bed, in the middle of the frame, there were three senior officials looking like they were directing things."

Five metres beyond the three officers lay the body of an earthquake victim. The reporter asked the most important-looking officer why he wasn't doing more to help the dead. "For the moment we can only rescue the living, we leave the dead," he replied.

A second body lay 15 metres further on. Again the reporter asked whether the authorities could do anything, and this time the most senior official ordered a soldier to cover the body with a plastic sheet.

At that point, close to midday, the reporter heard sounds of a trapped survivor tapping on glass from inside an apartment building, and another person tapping on what sounded like a garage door.

He ran back to the officers to get their help. "Are you sure?" the officer asked. "Are you certain of how many people there are?"

The officer ordered a group of soldiers to stop their movie skit and "go and have a look" - rather than attempt any rescue. The soldiers climbed on top of a car to have a look, listened for a few minutes and returned to their pantomime.

Not far away, men in army reserve uniforms were drinking beer looted from a destroyed shop. They were stuffing snacks and drinks in their pockets and pairs of socks into their pants. A civilian began helping himself to rice from a shop but was stopped by a blue-uniformed man - who later helped himself to a brand-new pair of sports shoes.

Later that afternoon the soldiers were still loitering, and sticking their hands out for drinks we carried to the exhausted rescuers actually looking for survivors - the orange-uniformed firefighters and search and rescue squads from far corners of the country. Only three or four soldiers could be seen helping the injured up the mountain.

Chinese state media have shown almost continuous footage this week of heroic soldiers urgently rushing around and pulling babies out of the rubble. Until dusk on Wednesday in Beichuan, at least, they were blocking the road and just there for show.