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China’s Quake Damage Control

5 minute read

Chinese have grown accustomed to seeing television footage of their Premier, Wen Jiabao, at the site of natural disasters. Often described as the human face of the country’s huge bureaucracy, Wen is well known for being sympathetic to the plight of ordinary citizens. But many were still surprised at the speed with which Wen reacted to the news that a huge earthquake had struck the country’s southwestern province of Sichuan on May 12. Little more than 90 minutes after the 7.9 magnitude quake struck at 2:30 p.m., Wen was headed for the airport. By early evening he had arrived in the provincial capital Chengdu, 930 miles (1,500 km) from Beijing. That night, the country’s state-owned TV stations repeatedly broadcast scenes of the Premier rallying rescue forces, issuing orders during a rainstorm, poring over maps, even venturing into the ruins to assure victims still trapped in the rubble that they should “Hold on a little longer” as help was on the way.

Particularly unusual in a country where the image of top leaders is carefully maintained were surprisingly candid shots of Wen having to raise his voice to get attention, stumbling and almost losing his hard hat, even being ignored by distraught survivors.

“They were not shy at all about showing him in full crisis mode, much more unsanitized stuff than would normally be allowed,” says Beijing-based scholar Russell Leigh Moses, who added that the scenes were clearly aimed at reassuring viewers that Wen and his fellow Communist Party leaders were making the utmost effort to bring relief to victims as rapidly as possible. “The government’s legitimacy is very much dependent on its ability to show that it can care for and look after ordinary Chinese, and this case is one where they have clearly made a decision to make absolutely sure there’s no doubt they are doing everything humanly possible.” Beijing has deployed 50,000 troops to help with relief efforts.

Chinese media have given blanket coverage to the earthquake, which has killed at least 12,000. According to the official Xinhua news agency, Chinese rescue workers report another 18,645 people remain buried under debris in Mianyang city, near the quake’s epicenter. State TV channels are providing almost hourly updates of the number of fatalities along with sometimes gruesome video of rescue operations, including scenes of grieving parents hovering near bloody corpses of children trapped or killed when schools collapsed.

Such openness is in stark contrast to the almost obsessive secretiveness that Beijing has displayed in the past when dealing with crises. In 1976, for example, an earthquake at Tangshan, 75 miles (121 km) southeast of Beijing, killed up to half a million. Not only did China refuse foreign offers for help, it banned foreigners from entering the city until seven years after the event. As recently as 2003, authorities in Beijing covered up the full extent of the deadly SARS outbreak for weeks, a decision that critics said delayed efforts to fight the virus and may have increased the number of deaths.

But that episode, which came during the first days in office of Premier Wen and President Hu Jintao, was a turning point. “The government learned the experience and the lesson from SARS,” says Shen Kui, a professor at Peking University’s law school, implementing new laws and regulations that made the process of crisis management more open and transparent. Even so, Shen says, “in a country where the people are used to hearing lies and cover-ups from its government, there is a certain amount of time required for people to get used to the more open approach. The first reaction from some people is still to blame the authorities.”

The fact that this openness can be a two-edged sword was underlined during a press conference held Tuesday by the State Council, the country’s highest administrative body. Wang Zhenyao, a senior official at the Ministry of Civil Affairs, was asked by a reporter from the government’s English-language newspaper, the China Daily, why so many schools had collapsed when government buildings in the same towns had not. According to state media, at least six schools were destroyed by the quake and its aftershocks; at one school, almost 900 eighth and ninth graders were believed to have been buried. Wang was forced to pick his way carefully around the question, aware of its implication that corrupt local officials had siphoned off funds from school construction. He denied that an unusually large number of schools had collapsed. Corruption has proved an inflammatory issue in the past—it was one of the driving forces behind the Tiananmen protest in 1989—and coupling it with an issue like the deaths of hundreds of children could be explosive.

Still, if chatter among China’s 200 million Internet users is anything to go by, Beijing’s decision to allow unusually open coverage of the earthquake has been vindicated. Comments on bulletin boards and blogs were overwhelmingly in favor of the government and approving of its reaction to the disaster. “I almost cried when I saw the pictures of Premier Wen at the front,” a typical post ran. “I felt very warm when I read that Premier Wen Jiabao immediately set off to the stricken,” another poster wrote. “I feel like our leaders are always with us when there is any trouble.”

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