Rescuers carried an injured quake victim from a collapsed building on Tuesday in Beichuan County, China. The country’s openness about the disaster is a departure from past practices.
BEIJING (NYT)— Mothers wailing over the bodies of their children. Emergency workers scrambling across pancaked buildings. And a grim-faced political leader comforting the stricken and reassuring an anguished nation.
While such scenes are a staple of catastrophes in much of the world, the rescue effort playing nonstop on Chinese television is remarkable for a country that has a history of concealing the scope of natural calamities and then bungling its response.
Since an earthquake flattened a swath of rural Sichuan Province on Monday, killing more than 13,000 people, the government in Beijing has mounted an aggressive rescue effort, dispatching tens of thousands of troops and promptly sending Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to the disaster zone, accompanied by reporters.
A hard hat on his head and a bullhorn in hand, he ducked into the wreckage of a hospital where scores of people were buried and shouted: “Hang on a bit longer. The troops are rescuing you.” Throughout the day, the images of Mr. Wen directing disaster relief officials and comforting the injured dominated the airwaves.
With scenes of the calamitous cyclone in Myanmar still fresh — and the military government’s languid, xenophobic response earning it international scorn — China’s Communist Party leaders are keenly aware that their approach to the earthquake will be closely watched at home and abroad. And after two bruising months of criticism from the West over its handling of Tibetan unrest, the government can ill afford another round of criticism as it prepares to host the Olympic Games in August.
In its zigzagging pursuit of a more nimble and effective form of authoritarian rule, China may be having a defining moment. Its harsh crackdown on discontented Tibetans bore the hallmarks of Beijing’s hard-line impulses. But its decision on Tuesday to scale back the elaborate domestic leg of the Olympic torch relay — after a flood of Internet protests calling it insensitive — is a sign that officials are not deaf to public sentiment.
Shi Anbin, a professor of media studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said he thought the international uproar after the crackdown in Tibet was having an impact on Communist Party leaders. “My judgment is that the government has drawn some lessons from negative feedback,” he said. “I think it reflects a trend of Chinese openness and reform.”
So far, that approach appears to be paying off. Commentary on Chinese Web sites and in chat rooms has been full of praise for the government’s emergency response. On Tianya, a popular forum where antigovernment postings sometimes find a home, users have been quick to shout down those who criticize Mr. Wen and the military’s delay in reaching some quake victims. “Those who can only do mouth work please shut up at this key moment,” says one posting.
Another writer praised the People’s Liberation Army, saying: “Whenever there’s a life-or-death crisis, they’re the ones on the front line. We certainly can overcome this catastrophe because we have them.”
Chinese Web sites remain heavily censored, and a brief flirtation with openness and responsiveness does not mean that China is headed toward Western-style democracy. On the contrary, if China manages to handle a big natural disaster better than the United States handled Hurricane Katrina, the achievement may underscore Beijing’s contention that its largely nonideological brand of authoritarianism can deliver good government as well as fast growth.
Dali Yang, the director of the East Asian Institute in Singapore, said the government might have come to the realization that openness and accountability could bolster its legitimacy and counter growing anger over corruption, rising inflation and the disparity between the urban rich and the rural poor.
“I think their response to this disaster shows they can act, and they can care,” he said. “They seem to be aware that a disaster like this can pull the country together and bring them support.”
The official response since Monday stands in stark contrast not only to neighboring Myanmar’s, but also to China’s abysmal performance during a major quake in 1976, when at least 240,000 people died in the eastern city of Tangshan. The lessons from that disaster have undoubtedly been imprinted on the minds of the men who govern from Beijing. In the days after the quake, the powerful Gang of Four played down the disaster and rebuffed offers of help from the outside world, leaving rescue efforts to poorly equipped soldiers.
Hua Guofeng, who was the chosen successor to Mao and was then out of favor, visited Tangshan a few days after the quake. This act of good will enhanced his power and, along with Mao’s death later that year, emboldened him to arrest the Gang of Four, effectively ending the decade-long Cultural Revolution and ushering in leaders who introduced the economic reforms that continue to transform China.
The Communist Party does not always remember the lessons of Tangshan. Repeated flooding on the Yangtze River — partly caused by government inaction — has killed thousands. The SARS epidemic of 2003, which officials initially sought to cover up, prompted accusations that the party was more concerned with promoting a false image of stability than with the commonweal.
Last winter Mr. Wen found himself facing thousands of angry travelers who were stranded by a snowstorm that crippled the nation’s rail system. And last month, the collision of two passenger trains in Shandong Province killed 72 people, injured more than 400 and laid bare the failure of transportation officials to communicate a go-slow order on a stretch of track that was under construction.
While information on that accident was tightly controlled and foreign reporters were kept at bay, coverage of the Sichuan earthquake seems more unfettered. Scores of Chinese reporters have been broadcasting live from places across the quake zone and so far, at least, foreign correspondents have been given unrestricted access.
The Xinhua News Agency, the government’s leading propaganda organ, has offered an unusually vigorous stream of updates about casualties and problems confronting rescue teams. Internet sites have been filled with cellphone videos of the quake and commentary, most of it laudatory, but some of it criticizing the military’s response. A few postings have given life to a rumor that officials in Sichuan knew the quake was imminent and failed to act.
Mr. Shi, the media studies professor, said he was surprised by the government’s candor and the vigor of the state-run Chinese press. He attributed some of the openness to a recent law that requires public officials to provide information to the news media during natural disasters. But like many experts, he said the Olympics were pushing China to experiment with a greater degree of openness.
“This is the first time the Chinese media has lived up to international standards,” he said, adding, “I think the government is learning some lessons from the past.”
Fan Wenxin contributed reporting from Shanghai.