As thousands of Chinese fled their ruined villages in Sichuan this past week, the roads were jammed with cars going in the opposite direction. State television was showing unpreceden ted 24-hour coverage of the disaster, so middle-class Chinese, gripped by concern for their compatriots, loaded up their cars with food, water, quilts and medicines and headed into the earthquake zone.
“I’m helping in whatever way I can,” said a young man giving out water bottles at Mianyang Stadium, where 15,000 quake victims were sheltering. “My college had to close, but I didn’t want to leave. I’m going to be a teacher, and one day I’ll be able to tell my students what I did in the earthquake.”
Some volunteers were disaster tourists, snapping pictures on their mobile phones and generally getting in the way, but others came with skills and equipment. Wang Zhanyou and three colleagues bought pickaxes, chains, shovels and specialised rescue equipment in Chengdu. Having previously worked in China’s coal belt, extracting people trapped in collapsed coal mines, they talked their way through police roadblocks until they reached Beichuan, one of the worst- affected towns, where they found a mountain of rubble and eventually succeeding in digging out four survivors. “When my country is suffering from such a disaster, it’s my responsibility to do something,” said Wang.
In a country with few non-governmental organisations, where the government and the Communist Party are meant to provide for all the people’s needs, the spirit of individual volunteerism is new. Some foreign rescue teams have also been welcomed, and international journalists allowed to move around more or less freely.
All media in China are controlled by the government. Shortly after the quake, the Central Publicity Department sent an instruction, as it does after all disasters, telling editors only to publish reports from Xinhua, the official news agency. But the directive was ignored, and hundreds of reporters were sent to Sichuan. According to EastSouthWestNorth, a website which analyses the Chinese media, reporters decided that “if their reports get spiked, they could serve as volunteers”. Eventually, even the Communist Party mouthpiece decided to make a virtue of the propaganda department’s failure. “We no longer take calamities as classified, confidential secrets, or ‘negative information’, and feel worried night and day because of possible rumours,” said a People’s Daily editorial.
Stung by international criticism of the way reporting of the Tibetan unrest was suppressed, and of attempts to censor coverage of the disruption to the Olympic torch relay, the government seems to have decided it would be counterproductive to try to hide a disaster on this scale.
China’s last major earthquake, in the north-eastern city of Tangshan, occurred just before the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Although 240,000 people died, the government refused all international assistance, touting instead “self-reliance”, just like the Burmese junta today. Foreign journalists were barred from the city for seven years.
“Many people saw the quake as a sign from the gods that political changes were imminent,” wrote Graham Earnshaw in 1983, as China correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, on visiting Tangshan. “The chairman died six weeks afterwards.” Premier Zhou Enlai and the former Red Army general Zhu De died the same year, leading the Chinese to refer to the “curse of 1976”.
After terrible winter snowstorms, riots by angry Tibetans and the disruption of the Olympic torch relay, China’s leaders may worry that the portents in 2008 are equally bad. According to tradition, the decline of dynasties was foretold by natural disasters, signalling a withdrawal by the gods of the “mandate of heaven”. Or maybe China is just becoming more modern, its leaders understanding that although this is not a demo cracy, catastrophes cannot be hidden, and to retain legitimacy they must be accountable.
China’s leaders have been shown on TV visiting earthquake victims to offer condolences, behaving like modern, western politicians. “Your pain is our pain,” Premier Wen Jiabao told survivors. He has been dubbed “commander-in-chief of rescue operations”. Even President Hu Jintao, known for his unsmiling demeanour and jargon-laden, three-hour diatribes at party congresses, has been out and about. More importantly, they have organised a major relief effort, with 130,000 troops deployed as well as firefighters and medical teams. The contrast with Burma is striking, but the Chinese may prefer comparison with the hopeless incompetence of the US authorities in New Orleans, faced with Hurricane Katrina.
Nonetheless, when the emergency phase is over, the Chinese government will have to answer questions, primarily about corruption in awarding school building contracts. Li Qi wept uncontrollably as he watched orange-clad rescue workers digging in the rubble of Beichuan Middle School. He had given up hope of finding his 16-year-old son alive. He railed against those who had built the school. “This kind of bad-quality building is a result of the developers using inferior materials,” he said. “This is the cause of the disaster which has befallen our children.”
So common is the phenomenon of local officials and developers creaming off more profit by stinting on cement and adding more sand to the concrete mixture, that the Chinese have a name for the resulting structures: “tofu buildings”. With 6,900 classrooms destroyed and thousands of schoolchildren dead, the government has announced an inquiry into school building standards, but angry, grief-stricken parents may demand more. The one-child policy means that those who have lost a teenager, and are too old to have another child, have nothing left to lose.
Changing the system
Preventing corruption in tendering for building new schools would require a real change in the system. Officials frequently intimidate local journalists who try to expose graft; judges are appointed by provincial party bosses, and so rarely move against their patrons. Yet, after such huge national and international coverage, it would be hard for the authorities to quell a movement of grieving parents wanting to organise themselves as school building watchdogs.
On 19 May, China observed a three-minute silence exactly one week after the earthquake. The flag in Tiananmen Square was flown at half mast; all over the country car horns sounded as people stood in silence. The previous night, a giant benefit concert featuring Chinese stars had been broadcast live on television, raising 1.5 billion yuan (£110m). The patriotic fervour whipped up for the Olympics, which had turned into anti-western nationalism, has been transformed into an outpouring of sympathy for the earthquake victims.
Wen Jiabao has characterised this as the worst natural disaster to hit China since the Communist Party came to power in 1949. Although the death toll in Tangshan may have been greater, this quake has made up to five million homeless.
In the face of such suffering, it would be heartless and probably over-optimistic to herald the Sichuan earthquake as the beginning of civil society and accountable government in China. And yet, this natural disaster may have done more than years of campaigning by human rights and democracy activists to force the Chinese government to start opening up.
Lindsey Hilsum is China correspondent for Channel 4 News