Out of quake’s rubble, the prospect of change

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French
Published: May 29, 2008
SHANGHAI: This has been a good month for China’s government, and especially for its ruling Communist Party.
That may sound like an odd thing to say after an earthquake whose final death toll could reach 80,000 or more, but to say so is neither flip nor insensitive. Rather, it is giving political reality its due.
China entered the month of May riding a head-spinning streak of bad political news and even poorer political judgment. The uprising by Tibetans and rumblings among Uighurs in the country’s vast far west simultaneously had brought severe damage to the “China brand” internationally, while raising serious questions about the fragility of what even most Chinese forget is still very much a patchwork nation.
Seemingly overinvested in the prestige value of hosting the Olympics, Beijing responded to the gathering crises with rhetorical excess, officially elevating the ersatz event of the global Olympic torch rally to a “sacred cause.”
Despite lots of recent nationalist sentiment against perceived unfair criticism from the West, day in and day out many Chinese feel alienation and cynicism about their country’s political system and its leaders.
It was against this backdrop that the test of the earthquake arrived. In the words of the China expert David Shambaugh, in his new book, “China’s Communist Party, Atrophy and Adaptation”: “The challenges the CCP faces in maintaining its power and legitimacy increasingly involve governance and providing public goods. This is a new kind of revolution for a Leninist party: the revolution of rising expectations.”
By this important standard, China’s government passed this month’s test with flying colors. This, mind you, is as much a matter of perceptions as it is objective measurements, but in matters of cachet and legitimacy, perceptions loom large.
In many countries, after a tragedy of this magnitude, heads would be rolling as angry voices demanded that political leaders be held to account. This is particularly true given the widespread collapse of flimsy school buildings that killed thousands of students, or the equally grave, but largely unmentioned, general lack of preparation for a major quake in an area of known high risk.
Remarkably instead, China has managed to turn this tragedy into an event of self-affirmation, and even celebration of its reborn competence and confidence. This fact is captured in the spirit of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s pithy inscription on a school blackboard in Beichuan, one of the most devastated places of all. “Distress regenerates a nation,” he wrote.
The system’s ability to flip the mood, as if by switch, from sheer grief to nationalist pride, without ever passing through the intermediate step of anger, was accomplished through the unstinting use of propaganda, served up in unsubtle dollops that would have revolted people in many other places: endless focus on the doings of the leaders; saturation coverage of relief efforts replete with tear-jerking themes and melodramatic music; and slogans like “love makes us stand together,” solemnly intoned over and over.
It would be wrong to conclude, though, that propaganda explains everything here. China increasingly obsesses in measuring itself in almost everything these days against the United States, and in the case of this disaster, it found ready self-encouragement in comparisons to America’s experience of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
A widely circulated item that first appeared on the Xinhuanet.com Web site drew a comparative timeline of the emergency response in the two disasters, claiming – among many other telling details – that China had an emergency plan within one hour of the earthquake, while the United States took 36 hours to establish a rescue command center.
“A hurricane tracked for more than a week beforehand, with warnings 48 hours in advance, hit a large city in the world’s most powerful country, which was in a state of emergency two days beforehand, and still caused more than 1,000 people’s death,” sneered one online commentator. “Everybody, make your own comparisons.”
Appraisals of the Chinese government during this month of crisis invite evaluations of other players and factors, too. Among the latter is China’s relations with the world. Fresh on the heels of the torch relay controversies, China entered the month with a common refrain that “the world is against us.”
With foreign relief donations flooding in, that became a difficult thought to sustain, and to Beijing’s credit, the tune quickly changed. “Not only is the support and assistance from the international community a form of material aid to China’s relief work, it is also a form of spiritual encouragement,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, said last week.
An exception of sorts has been the private attitude toward the United States, which many online commentators have scorned for the perceived stinginess of its donation.
After an encouragingly vigorous initial response to the quake, the Chinese press has largely disappointed anyone who imagined it would work tirelessly or courageously for real accountability. Of course, there have been some standouts, but the media have largely stuck to safe and predictable story lines and contributed to nationalist sentiment.
A Chinese colleague who traveled to the site of a school collapse and interviewed parents who were demanding government action said he was flatly turned away by several Chinese publications who all said the story was “too negative.”
Another major untold story in the disaster is the performance of the People’s Liberation Army, which only began air rescues several days into the crisis, and seems to have been ill-prepared in other important ways, too.
Its long-term impact is hard to discern, but China’s civil society must be listed tentatively as the other big performer in the crisis. The outpouring of volunteer work, charity and activism of all sorts may someday come to be seen as a turning point in civic culture here, and this brings one back to Shambaugh’s observations.
Involved citizens bring demands for change from below, rather than waiting for it to be delivered to them. Could this be China’s future?
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