Chinese disaster relief proves swift, and inclusive

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
LETTER FROM CHINA
By Howard W. French
June 5, 2008
DUJIANGYAN, China: America’s presumed Republican candidate for the presidency delivered an intriguing line about disaster relief in a campaign speech.
“We must also prepare, far better than we have, to respond quickly and effectively to a natural calamity,” Senator John McCain said Wednesday. “When Americans confront a catastrophe they have a right to expect basic competence from their government.”
As someone who has spent several days touring China’s earthquake zone in recent weeks, I have seen the kind of future McCain was talking about, and it works.
There are, of course, many things that China – as would be true of any society – does not get right. Indeed, a few of them specific to the catastrophic earthquake last month are worth naming.
Perhaps most seriously, little care or attention went into preparing for a foreseeable tragedy, indeed one that China’s own scientists had warned about. In the interest of making sure this tragedy turns into a good news story and to prevent dissent, the government has handled information about deficiencies in schools and other buildings with a disappointing lack of transparency, and its actions have prevented parents from grieving normally.
A reporter’s job is to bring a critical mind to the events of the day. Recent weeks have provided plenty of opportunity for such things. The task at hand on this occasion, however, is altogether different. In matters of disaster response, it is time to give China its due.
In an aside that has lastingly stained her reputation, France’s first woman prime minister spoke in the early ’90s of the Japanese as “yellow ants trying to take over the world.” Subsequent explanations by the prime minister, Édith Cresson, didn’t help matters. With its racist overtones, her complaint centered on the idea that the West faced unfair competition from an Asian nation where collective discipline and action and the cohesiveness of groups was more important that the needs of the individual.
Rank stereotypes aside, China’s response to the earthquake has many aspects of the very qualities that Cresson, with all of her oversimplification and misunderstanding, sought to criticize.
Drive on the highways in this part of Sichuan Province in the early morning or at nightfall and you are likely to come across immense convoys of trucks, filled with supplies on their way to badly stricken cities like this one, or on their way back home for resupply.
The trucks roll in convoys organized by place of origin. They might be carrying cement from Hubei, or tents from Shandong, or heavy equipment from Shanghai. Virtually every province has gotten into the act, but there is more to it than merely pitching in: One already detects a spirit of competition to see who can help the most.
The actions of individuals and small groups have been no less impressive, and have undoubted long-lasting, if still hard to define consequences for the country’s future. There is no great tradition of civic activism in post-revolutionary China, and this is not accident. The Communist Party has systematically blocked free association, and it has undoubtedly looked at the outpouring of public relief volunteerism with a mixture of pleasure and dread.
The state has done a remarkably nimble job of transforming this activism into a patriotic movement, replete both with the proliferation of “I love China” T-shirts and echoes of historic outpourings of nationalism in the past. The fact remains, though, that millions of Chinese have found ways to get involved, and for most, the reflex began at home and not with the authorities.
Yes, there have been disturbing notes, like nationalist demagogues active on the Internet who fulminated against tentative plans to have Japanese military planes fly in aid, causing the government to reverse course, or the online mobs that have urged boycotts of foreign companies that they claim have failed to donate enough money for the relief effort.
Despite this, watching the way ordinary people have behaved in this crisis, one is impressed by the growth in the kind of reflexes proper to real citizens, as opposed to “lao baixing,” the nameless masses. Civic pressure over corruption, for example, has caused the Chinese Red Cross to submit to auditing.
More than most, the Chinese government reels from crisis to crisis, often giving the impression that its main function is that of a national firehouse, rather than the serene custodian of a carefully planned future that it often pretends to be. Pressure from popular opinion has forced it to respond quickly, though, to remedy serious failures in public safety policies. This week, for example, a sweeping law was introduced requiring strict building standards for public structures like schools and hospitals.
In a nation that has grown increasingly wealthy on the backs of peasants and on the labors of exploited migrant workers, the word “people” in the country’s official title, the People’s Republic of China, is an easy target for mockery. Something has changed in the response to this crisis, though, and Beijing has seized the opportunity to renew its credentials among the populace.
“When we rebuild, we will make Dujiangyan the world’s safest city,” Qu Jun, the planning bureau chief told me. “There will be special rooms in buildings where people can take refuge and survive for up to a month. If there’s another earthquake in China, Dujianyan will be the kind of place people flee to.” No one who has watched the way cities like Shanghai and Beijing have been rebuilt can doubt China’s will to carry such visions out, and with a speed that would make New Orleans envious.
A soldier who was dispatched to Tangshan, after China’s last great earthquake there, in 1976, only to experience the latest one here, spoke in a proud but understated way of the great change that has come over his country. “In 1976, the only thing the government offered people was treatment for diarrhea,” he said. “Little by little, things have gotten better.”
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