Rising to the challenge

May 17, 2008

Ten days after Cyclone Nargis exposed the indifference of Burma's junta, China was hit by a comparable calamity. John Garnaut and Hamish McDonald look at how Beijing responded.

China now has 500 million mobile telephones in use, and not long after the massive earthquake struck the heart of Sichuan province on Monday afternoon, the following text message flashed around the entire nation:

January 25 - Snowstorm equals natural disaster; 1+2+5=8

March 14 - Bald Tibetans equal man-made disaster; 3+1+4=8

May 12 - Earthquake equals seismic disaster; 5+1+2=8

8.8.08 - the Olympics.


As they waited for the inevitably grim casualties that would come from a 7.8Richter-scale quake hitting densely populated mountain valleys, Chinese tried to make some sense of the turmoil in what was supposed to be a triumphant year, culminating in the Olympics opening on the auspicious date of so many "lucky" eights.

In January, as hundreds of millions of migrant workers tried to get home for the lunar new year holiday, the country was hit by violent snow storms that stopped trains, cut roads and power lines and grounded flights. In March, repression of commemoration of the 1959 uprising by Tibetan monks set off destructive rioting in Lhasa, rebounding in worldwide protest around the Olympic torch procession. Finally, 88 days before the games, China is hit by the worst earthquake in a generation.

Some luck. Yet despite the heart-rending scenes of loss - especially the parents grieving over the bodies of their children, for most people the only one allowed them under the country's strictly enforced population policy - it became clear the disaster highlighted a new strength among the Chinese.

At government level, the reaction was in sharp contrast to that of the generals in neighbouring Burma dealing with the cyclonic surge that hit the prime rice bowl of the Irrawaddy Delta on May 2, drowning perhaps 100,000 and leaving more than 2 million others destitute and homeless.

Within two hours, the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, was on an aircraft to the nearest big city, the Sichuan capital Chengdu. The next morning he is in the quake zone, shouting encouragement to people trapped in collapsed buildings. "So long as there is a glimmer of hope we shall not rest," Wen, megaphone in hand, said to rescuers. Civil and People's Liberation Army personnel clamber over landslides, use collapsible boats to get up rivers, and even parachute into cut-off valleys.

The state's China Central Television and Xinhua begin filing reports on the calamity within hours, including video footage. Journalists from the semi-independent media and even foreign correspondents get to the scene within 24 hours, while survivors in mobile phone coverage get their stories out to friends. On Thursday, China decides to accept offers of specialist rescue teams from foreign governments - including former enemy Japan.

All this was happening in a region studded with political sensitivity. Mianyang is the centre of China's nuclear weapons research, containing many highly secret laboratories. The quake zone is the ethnic borderland between the Han people of China and the Tibetan and other minorities of the south-west. Recently there have been environmental concerns about its hydro-electric dams.

Contrast the last earthquake of this scale. In July 1976, six weeks before Chairman Mao Zedong died, the northern coal-mining centre of Tangshan rocked to a 7.8-level tremor, collapsing most of its buildings and killing 242,000 people by the official count. All offers of outside help were refused and it was not until 1983 that foreign correspondents were allowed to see a city still looking like a bombsite.

Or the earlier bizarre ideological response to natural calamities shown at Shantou in 1969, when 553 young soldiers and students, inspired by a propaganda slogan that "mankind can conquer the heavens", drowned when they plunged into a breached sea-dyke during a typhoon.

In ancient times, emperors would have issued "rescripts" and made sacrifices to ward off any dynastic omens in natural disaster. Even in 1976, after 27 years of Marxist materialism, many Chinese connected Tangshan to the fall of Mao's favoured Gang of Four, who were arrested soon after his death.

Geremie Barme, professor of Chinese history at the Australian National University, who passed through the Tangshan area two weeks after the 1976 earthquake, said the political manipulation of horrific tragedy has deep roots in China.

He said China's party-state had an extraordinary ability to mobilise after disasters such as the devastating floods of 1991. But it always puts on a kind of show he called "performative revolutionary humanitarianism".

"People have responded generously to this vast human tragedy but many are also aware that the party is 'zuo xiu', that is, 'putting on a show' for mass consumption," Barme said. "There's a tradition reaching back into dynastic times in which power-holders display their virtue through great shows of munificence through disaster relief," he said.

"Equally, there's a deeply held popular belief that natural disasters are brought on by the moral decay of the society and the political corruption of their leaders."

A strong element of zuo xiu was apparent in Premier Wen Jiabao's activity, along with pragmatic questions of accountability that swept aside the normal political inhibitions and the sheer impractibility of keeping such a disaster under wraps in a country of half a billion cellphones and 200 million internet users.

And like the January snowstorms - in which Wen also went out to give "on-the-spot guidance" - the earthquake hurt the people on whose hard labour China's economic miracle is founded: the Sichuan villagers whose young women hunch over sewing machines and circuit boards in coastal factories and whose menfolk build China's instant cities leaving their children at home with grandparents.

Already a volatile element because of poor working conditions, low pay (often in arrears), makeshift housing and limited access to medical and welfare services, the estimated 140 million migrant-worker population is a constituency the authorities have to placate.

There was an attempt at old-style news management. Within half an hour of the quake being registered, the Communist Party's Propaganda Ministry was telephoning editors at the more adventurous media groups, telling them to take news from CCTV and Xinhua and not send reporters.

But the propaganda machine was ignored and the Government let it go. Within two hours there was near-continuous reporting. By Wednesday five reporters from a southern publication were backpacking over huge mountains to get to Wenchuan, at the epicentre of the quake. Others were searching for lost villages. Even "official" publications were venturing to print the news before the Government said so, including news that would have been considered "too sensitive" or "inconvenient" at other times.

By and large the public has been kept up to date with the scale of the disaster and the Government's response. Senior officials candidly answered questions and foreign journalists were mostly given the freedom to travel and report that you might expect from a developed country.

At 7am on Wednesday morning, the Herald visited the Mianyang rescue headquarters. One of the city's top officials, Zhou Ming, came out to talk despite having returned from Beichuan only two hours earlier and not getting a minute of sleep since Monday.

He relayed what he had seen, rather than what State media had already reported, and seemed composed, open and impressive. "Beichuan has steep mountains on either side and they both collapsed on top of it," he said, estimating that more than half the town's 20,000 people were dead or buried.

Similarly, a senior health official, Shen Qilin, told us he was worried about epidemic diseases - well before the idea had been cleared by propaganda HQ. And the Beichuan rescue chief told us candidly that the sheer number of soldiers had become "a problem".

At Mianyang's Jiuzhou Stadium, over 10,000 people were sitting and lying on makeshift beds out of the rain on the upper landing or mingling outside. Small knots of families come together, perhaps for the first time since the earthquake, to share news and a good cry.

Dozens of service tents were erected outside to dispense food, medical help and the things that people need. An orphanage was set up inside the stadium. The toilets were working, the rubbish constantly swept into neat piles. A young mother sits down by herself on a curb outside to silently weep. A reassuring official comes over. Her son was buried in Beichuan, she says, finally allowing herself an audible cry.

Old men were handing out bowls of hot barley porridge dispensed from buckets on their bicycle trays. Family cars arrived, jammed with bags of clean, second-hand clothes. Old women handed out cups of hot water. Students carried cartons of drinks on their shoulders. The needy were picking through a mountain of clothes, guided by polite policemen. Another cop arrived with his head bandaged and clothes splattered with yesterday's blood, but shirt tucked into his pants and ready for duty.

The main front road entrance, where the trucks arrive with their cargoes of refugees from Beichuan, is jammed with trucks and cars that have stopped to drop off deliveries.

It's a problem that China hasn't often had to cope with: too many people giving and not enough receiving. "When something like this happens you don't have a choice," says a young teacher, Wu Zhangju. "I see people who are lightly injured helping others."

Beijing still risks criticism and popular dissatisfactions on several fronts. Bloggers allege there were ignored warning signs - toads and other animals behaving strangely, or ponds suddenly draining. Even senior officials are admitting that building standards may have been ignored by local governments, putting children in schools made of "tofu" concrete that were bound to collapse.

The three-day delay in admitting foreign rescue experts may have condemned hundreds to avoidable death. The huge PLA manpower thrown at the quake zone was visibility deficient in management, with thousands of soldiers idle and simply clogging roads.

Over-egging by the propaganda machine also risked cynicism, at least: over the past two days, CCTV presenters read in full a letter from a Chengdu "elementary school student" strangely writing in complicated and dated language more associated with old people: "Grandfather Wen, we love you. Premier Wen we adore you. We love you forever."

But overall, it was a demonstration of China's nascent charity culture, assisted by a prompt and decent Government response with a leadership trying to harness resources and overcome its own traditional instincts of secrecy, denial and buck-passing.

And where Burma's generals persisted with their grotesque referendum on a new fake-democratic constitution, Chinese authorities sharply curtailed the domestic Olympic torch relay after widespread online comments that it was now inappropriate.

Whatever the mandate of heaven for the rest of 2008, the Chinese leadership seems acutely aware of the risk that like ancient emperors and their mandarins, their record will be seen as reflected in natural disasters. It's political accountability with Chinese characteristics.