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.

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