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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

The Aftershock: China's New Open Face

June 9, 2008

by Kumar David
The Island (Sri Lanka)
June 7, 2008

China is showing a completely different face in the openness with
which it is handling the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake. I am
not referring to the efficiency, speed and organisational skill with
which rescue and disaster management is being undertaken, though
obviously this is priority number one at this stage; in this piece I
will describe the metamorphosis in information and public relations
management by the state, and new forms of civilian responses to the
catastrophe. Something is happening in the style and behaviour of
society and state; for China watchers, it comes as a fascinating but
welcome aftershock.

The quake

The May 12 earthquake, which was measured at 8.0 on the Richter
scale, was in Sichuan in southwestern China, the country's fourth
most populated Province, and was centred in Wenshuan County. The
epicentre is 90km from the provincial capital Chengdu but tremors
were felt as far as a thousand miles away. The death toll is
estimated at about 75,000, hundreds of thousands have been injured
and 5 million people have been rendered homeless. The official and
civil responses have been exemplary; the Communist Party rapidly
swung into action and the PLA which sent 100,000 troops into the area
within three days was very soon in total control of the situation.
Prime Minister Wen Jiabao was in Sichuan within hours of the quake
and was directing operations; refugee camps were orderly,
distribution of food and drinking water well organised, disinfection
timely and disease outbreaks prevented; medical facilities are coping
reasonably. This sort of top gear response one expects from China
anyway, but what is new was the openness of the process, but more on this anon.

The initial quake has been followed by over a week of aftershocks,
some of them very severe. One of the most serious concerns is that
Sichuan is a province with 1300 rivers and 120 dams; five major
tributaries of Asia's greatest river, the Yangtze (which skirts
Sichuan's western and southern borders) lie in the province.
Landslides have raised water levels in many lakes and reservoirs. Bad
weather is continuing to hamper rescue work, but more seriously,
heavy rainfall is compounding concerns about the dams; many have
developed cracks, and now there is the fear of overtopping. If even
one of the bigger ones gives up, 10 million people downstream may
have to flee – some evacuation has already been ordered. PLA
detonation teams have started managed breaching of some dams and
controlled emptying of lakes is in progress. Questions are being
asked about why so many dams were built in an area with known fault
zones. (The earthquake, however, was several hundred miles upstream
of Three Gorges, but environmentalists will begin finger wagging when
the mandatory period of politeness for the emergency passes).

China's unexpected new face

There has been 24 hour TV coverage on several national channels,
CCTV-9, China's 24-hour English language international channel has
carried extensive coverage, aftershocks, danger of flooding, the
fearful tasks of breaking through the rubble in rescue missions are
all dealt with openly. Foreign journalists and camera teams have
descended in large numbers. This is completely new compared to the
way in which China handled all its previous natural disasters – such
as the catastrophic 1976 Tangshan earthquake and the 1998 Yangtze
floods, the worst in 44 years. A second radical departure from
previous practices is that civilians, either as individuals or in
groups, as well as NGOs have poured into the area with money, food,
tents, bedding, transport facilities and medication. This is new for
China where the heavy hand of state management overlay every previous
mega scale national mobilisation.

What is the reason for this unexpected volte-face and does it signal
a permanent mutation? Three decades of perhaps the fastest economic
growth in human history is creating a large middle-class, something
that China did not inherit from a colonial past – India is the
obvious counter example. The burgeoning middle class, first and most
important, is numerically huge, numbering in the tens of millions
already, perhaps more than a hundred million depending on the
criteria one employs. These people are educated, an increasing number
own a flat or a car, and have acquired the self-confidence and values
universal to this class. China also has ancient traditions of
community self-help which decades of communism conflated with
socialistic economic and ideological practices. The combination of
wealth, mobility and community responsiveness unleashed a flood of
civilian intervention after the earthquake. The government, stretched
to the limit, even if fearful of public mobilisation, was prevented
by the imperatives of the situation from attempting to subordinate
independent initiatives to its own dictates.

Can the genie be put back in the bottle?

Processes of economic development have created concomitant social
changes that have been maturing for a long time; these elements burst
out and manifested themselves as civilian involvements to meet urgent
unexpected needs. That is to say, the earthquake acted as a trigger
for the release of latent potential. The state in China is still very
much a semi-Stalinist affair; it is authoritarian and fearful of
rival centres of power and though it is changing to allow space for a
more open economy and to accommodate more assertive social classes,
its monopoly of power remains largely intact. Fulan gong for example
is a fairly harmless sect that likes to do its Tai chi exercises and
practice cult like observances. It is non-political and seems to be
no challenge to the state. However, it is very large and well
organised and this is a threat to the control freak mentality of the
one party state; the CCP is in no mood to dilute its monopoly of
power. The arguments with the Vatican about who appoints Bishops and
the reluctance to deal with the Dalai Lama and his "government" in
exile, spring from similar apprehensions.

So will this brief spring of openness be abandoned once the dust
settles on the earthquake debris and will the genie of tolerance be
bottled up again? For several reasons I think it will not be easy.
The clout of the new social forces is not going to ebb away. These
people have been asserting themselves for a while -- the earthquake
aftermath was just an exceptional manifestation - and their influence
will continue to grow; the CCP will have to adapt. The Olympics is
also putting pressure on Beijing to maintain a more open society in
allowing the flow of information, and the bad press about Tibet,
which has been astutely contained by playing on the earthquake, could
turn awkward again.

The most ugly aspect, however, is only just raising its head. Right
now the priority still is responding to the emergency, but a huge
backlash regarding the collapse of school buildings is developing.
Hundreds of schools collapsed and tens of thousands of students were
crushed to death while other neighbouring structures stood or
suffered limited damage. Corrupt provincial government and party
functionaries made big money winking at shoddy construction, hand in
glove with rogue contractors. Parents are now on the warpath,
officials and regional party bosses are being rebuked, anger is
pouring out. The leaders in Beijing cannot avoid the fallout, by
trying to pass the blame to lower orders; top leaders will be impaled.

Of course the controlling bureaucracy will fight back, journalist and
Internet freedom is not going to flower tomorrow (but thank you, they
don't hack their journalists for chop suey), and NGOs are not going
to bloom like a hundred flowers. Nevertheless, this time I reckon the
genie is going to stay out of the bottle, and the fellow is going to
run the merry devil in the corridors of power. Good!
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