Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Sichuan Earthquake

This is my first post since arriving home from a month spent traveling through China.

We were due to fly into Sichuan on the evening of May 12. The earthquake happened at 2.28 pm that day. By about 4 pm we knew that our flight had been cancelled.

We heard about the earthquake at about 3 pm as we walked through the old town of Qingyan, south of Guiyang, capital of Guizhou Province. It was already on the TV. In each house we passed, somber groups of Miao and Han Chinese watched the first reports.

Some people were saying that the reported scale of 7.8 was too high, that it was just a rumour and that the real figure was likely to be around 5.4. But the higher figure was confirmed by the time our flight was cancelled.

We’d been looking forward to going to Sichuan. It was/is a province that I hadn’t been to apart from a brief passage through Chongqing last year. And our appetites had been whetted by reports from our youngest son who had been in Sichuan the previous week with a mate. He had described Chengdu as a great place, and had raved about the Jiuzhaigou national park ( and the Huanglong scenic area nearby ( ).

For our part, we wanted to go to the panda breeding station and the Anren- Jianchuan Museum Cluster ( ), a massive museum with exhibition halls on a wide range of topics including the heroism of Chinese prisoners-of-war and other aspects of the anti-Japanese struggle, and the “Red Age” (1950-1980).

Disappointed, we returned to our hotel in Guiyang.

Then the scale of the disaster hit home. Initial casualty figures of 900 or so were revised, and then revised again and again as Chinese TV began its 24-hour live coverage of the efforts to get into the disaster zone. Chengdu Airport was closed as part of a massive airlift of some 47,000 PLA troops (more came in later) dispatched to Beichuan and Wenchuan at the earthquake’s epicenter to begin the search for survivors.

We also watched CNN. This US imperialist media outlet had taken the lead in whipping up an anti-China frenzy with its support for the Tibetan separatist movement, but had been caught unawares by the ability of supporters of China to use the internet to expose its lies and distortions. The earthquake was a chance for CNN to try and regain some lost credibility, and it was fulsome in its praise of the immediate, thorough and highly organised response by the Chinese Government to the disaster. It took the opportunity, though, to repeatedly contrast this with the indifference and corruption of the generals in Burma/Myanmar. They may have made the more obvious contrast with the Bush regime’s inactivity at the time of Hurricane Katrina, but I didn’t see any such reference. However, the sight of Premier Wen Jiabao the very next morning in the rubble consoling victims and dealing with issues referred to him on the spot, was incredibly moving and, yes, in stark contrast to President Bush and his very belated and short-lived attendance to New Orleans.

CNN also tried to infer that had the Chinese Government been prepared to accept international aid during the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, there may have been fewer lives lost in that disaster.

In fairness to the China of 1976, (and I first visited the place in 1974), I don't see how large teams of foreigners pouring into Tangshan would have materially improved the earthquake relief operation required at that time. Sure, China did have some very capable translators and interpreters who could have liaised between Chinese relief organisations and those from the outside world, but they were few and far between and nothing like the sophisticated army of English-speakers who now exist in business, the professions, the service industries and academia. One only has to watch the constant flow of such people through the current affairs presentations on the English-language channel CCTV-9 to be aware of the talent that now exists, in an emergency, to facilitate language exchange and inter-cultural understandings. In the absence of this human infrastructure, the sudden imposition on a disaster zone of personnel who don't speak the local language, don't understand the local ways and who create their own wants and needs based on First World health and lifestyle expectations, can create more of a hindrance than a help.

What we witnessed during the couple of days that were lost from our itinerary was a Government responding with compassion and efficiency in an all-out effort to save lives. That was the explicitly-stated top priority, and it remained so even after nine days when some of the last survivors were pulled from the rubble. We also witnessed the spirit of “fearing neither hardship nor death in serving the people” on the part of the PLA, militia, armed police and civilian volunteers taking part in rescue work. Unfortunately, some of them did lose their lives in trying to save other life. And particularly on the part of young people, out in the streets collecting money, or lining up to donate blood, we saw a concern for damaged humanity that we had feared was lost to the attractions of the glitz and glitter of the market economy.

On a secondary, but no less sad, note we found out yesterday that the Guizhou town of Anshun where we had slept on the Sunday night before the earthquake, has had its own share of troubles with three days of torrential rains causing massive flooding (see below). A dozen lives have been lost and up to 60,000 houses affected.

China’s resilience is being tested on more than one front.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Book review: Shan Ru-hong's "The War in the South"

Shan Ruhong is one of a number of members of the former Malayan Communist Party who have recently published their memoirs.

This particular volume is a detailed account of the guerillas that fought the occupying Japanese forces in the Malayan state of Negri Sembilan during World War 2.

They operated as the Malayan Peoples Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) under the leadership of the Party.

The Malayan Communist Party, however, was led at this time by a Vietnamese national known as Lai Te who worked as a double agent for the Japanese during the war and for the British after the war.

The story of his eventual exposure and removal from leadership is told in Chin Peng’s book “Alias Chin Peng: My Side of History”.

Shan Ruhong provides an incredibly detailed record of the various committees and organizations established to further the anti-Japanese cause. Some of this detail is lost on me as a non-Malaysian, but for the descendents of the heroes of this struggle to have a record of their parents’ and grandparents’ contributions is a wonderful legacy.

Drawing on the rich experience of anti-Japanese armed warfare, Shan Ruhong summarises the lessons learned in various stages of the struggle in a way that will be of great benefit to future generations of revolutionary activists. One senses, for example in the 18 observations that Shan Ruhong lists in his chapter on “The State Committee on working methods and tasks”, the same sort of universality of general principles that imbues the writings of Mao Zedong from the same period of anti-Japanese warfare.

Shan Ruhong also discusses the contradiction between central and regional leadership, using the central decision to move the 2 Independent guerillas to West Pahang.

He writes, “With the withdrawal of 2 Independent the fight would be weakened and the enemy attacks would increase, the activity of traitor would also increase. What would be the fate of the anti-Japanese people? How to deal with the decision?”

He notes that “Central had not understood the situation in Negri…nor had they consulted….But the directive had to be obeyed.”

Shan Ruhong communicated his firm acceptance (but disagreement with) the decision to the centre, and urged his comrades to set an example in unity for the people. He pointed out to his comrades that because the local and foreign situation favoured the anti-Japanese struggle, and although the enemy attacks would be fierce, that “our difficulties were temporary and that if we were resolute we would win.”

Shan Ruhong says that after the war, and after Lai Te’s exposure as a Japanese agent. It was clear that decision to transfer 2 Independent had come from the Japanese.

And, despite his own disciplined acceptance of the organizational principle of democratic centralism, he cautions about excessive leadership secrecy: “Lai Te’s movements were a mystery, camouflaged by the excuse that underground activities needed the utmost secrecy. This avoided collective supervision by the Central Committee. Everything was done over the heads of the central Committee.”

Shan Ruhong’s book also reveals some of the background to the apparent isolation of the predominantly Chinese MCP from both the Malay and Indian nationalities.

He accepts that the responsibility mainly lay with the Chinese Malays: “We had formerly been prejudiced and regarded the Malay kampong as ‘backward’ because we only saw that side of them which had swallowed Japanese propaganda, that did not cooperate with the Chinese masses to resist Japan. But that was wrong because it must surely take time for the Malay masses to wake up to the truth about Japanese propaganda.”

Likewise, he blames his own Party leadership for rebuffing an approach from the leaders of 10,000 Malay Indians who “learnt about us and wanted to join the resist Japan movement.” These same Indians “had a hatred of British imperialism, wanting to attack all the way to India to achieve Indian independence.” But nothing came of their overtures, even at the end of the war when the Indians were “ready to join us in attacking the British” owing to Lai Te’s rejection of the proposal.

I commend this book to anyone wanting to learn more about the Malay peoples struggles against Japanese imperialism during World War 2.

(If interested in this topic, see also my review of Shan Ru-hong’s Gold in the South: )

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Extortion at Tiger Leaping Gorge

This is the story of an incident that occurred on a quick trip out from Lijiang, in Yunnan Province, to Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Our first, and unscheduled stop was at a small Buddhist temple overlooking what our driver referred to as ‘the First Bend in the River”. He said we could take photos of the Yangtze, which is called the Jinshui, or Golden Water, along this stretch and that it was “mianfeide” or free.

He was right, up to a point. My companions walked straight past the temple, against which numerous stone tablets (see below) were resting, and proceeded to view the bend in the river far below us. I was approached by a monk, however, and invited into the temple. I happily obliged, always interested in seeing another temple in China, and was promptly given a slip of paper, asked to place it between my hands held in front of me as if praying, and told to blow through it.

Not wanting to give offence by proclaiming the objections of a thorough-going materialist, I reluctantly performed the task, only to be guided by the monk into a small side room and ushered into a chair before a table. The monk immediately pushed my head down and held it in that position whilst he muttered a rapid incantation and then sat in a chair behind the desk. He then produced a large book and opened it to display the names of earlier victims of his mendacity and the amounts they had “donated” to the support of the temple. Most were large sums of hundreds of yuan; amounts of thousands of yuan were not infrequent. Next to the amounts were the signatures of the suckered.

Although no contract for payment of the blessings that had been bestowed by the monk existed, and I would have been within my rights to have enacted the Biblical “overturning of the tables”, a 100 yuan note was proffered with manifest displeasure, and received with haughty disapproval of the foreigner’s lack of generosity, and then the deal was entered in the ledger and signed for, and an everlasting record of the power of grasping monkhood left for the later intimidation of other luckless travellers.

I hastily left the Temple of Superstitious Extortion and rejoined my travelling companions who were enjoying the view without any idea of the price that had been paid. Asking where I had been, they then had to listen in disbelieving amusement to the sorry tale that was told.

Just down from the temple was another, smaller building in the vicinity of which lurked a trainee mendicant. I took photos, including one of the said youth, for which I happily and pleasurably refused to pay, to the youth’s disappointment.

Returning from the beautiful view, we were to discover that written proof of my torment was not to be confined to something so disposable as paper. The purpose for the tablets became clear to us: they were a record in stone of the names of the extorted! As we walked past, my name was being chiselled onto a "gongdepai" or Tablet of Merit and Virtue for posterity.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Human rights abuse continues in Aboriginal Australia

Pat Turner and Olga Havnen, respected Aboriginal activists and leaders, are interviewed in this video about the disgraceful and continuing Northern Territory Intervention. The essence of this intervention is the dismantling of Aboriginal land rights so as to ensure free and unfettered access to Aboriginal lands by giant mining and pastoral companies. To justify this land grab, whole Aboriginal communities have been demonised as drunkards and paedophiles. This is a continuing story of human rights abuses within Australian borders.

Friday, May 02, 2008

The Procession

It happened in a certain small town in northern China.

I came out from a tiny lane and turned into a narrow street to be immediately confronted with what looked like a major traffic jam.

The first of a long line of cars had pulled to a halt, causing a considerable number of similar vehicles to be banked up behind it.

On both sides of the street, people were stopping to look, taking a puzzlingly impassive interest in the spectacle.

I walked down the street, alongside the line of

cars, noticing that each had a large hand-drawn number attached to its windshield, and that behind their heavily tinted windows each was totally empty save for the driver.

There were some thirty cars in all, and as I came to the last of them, I could see the reason for this strange procession, for the cars were followed first of all by three golf buggy style contraptions in each of which were eight to ten wailing women, dressed in China’s mourning costume of a long white gown. Every now and then one of them would lift up her veil to check on the crowd’s response, then lower her veil and resume the wailing.

Behind them came the wreath-bearers. These two metre high wreaths, shaped like an inverted spade from a deck of cards, are a real sight: attached to a light wicker frame are hundreds of white flowers serving as a background for other quite colourful embellishments and messages of condolence.

Then came the family and the coffin, followed by another long line of mourners and various groups of musicians.

It was an impressive display, and watching it, I sought to blend in by standing as impassively and unresponsively as the many passers-by, shopkeepers and shoppers along the street.

I mentioned that I had seen a funeral to a Chinese friend later that night.

Her response surprised me.

“I hate that man,” she said.

It was an unusual confidence to be taken into.

She claimed that he was a local high official, and that in defiance of local regulations, his family had spent a lot of money to hire cars and professional mourners in order to put on a public display of his wealth and importance.

“What a huge waste all those empty cars were,” she complained.

“The family will be fined, but they can afford it,” she said.

She went on to say that it was quite likely that public money had been used to arrange the funeral procession, and that if such was the case, then it was simply corruption.

She said that she had also seen the procession, and that local people around her, in their particular dialect, had been quietly expressing their anger and distaste.

The incident added to my understanding of changes occurring in today’s China.

Corruption occurs and ordinary people resent it. The top leadership opposes it and punishes major offenders. But they cannot stop people pushing the boundaries and getting away with what they can.

Sitting here typing this, I see again a field of poor northern dirt, a farmer’s family and a skinny donkey attached to a small plough. Off to one side of the field stand a few simple conical mounds of dirt that represent the final resting place for members of this family.

A simple life, honest work and a modest death….