The Aftermath: Chinese Leaders Have Been Praised for Their Response to the Sichuan Earthquake, but the Political Fallout Has Only Just Begun

Article excerpt

As thousands of Chinese fled their ruined villages in Sichuan this past week, the roads were jammed with cars going in the opposite direction. State television was showing unprecedented 24-hour coverage of the disaster, so middleclass Chinese, gripped by concern for their compatriots, loaded up their cars with food, water, quilts and medicines and headed into the earthquake zone.

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"I'm helping in whatever way I can," said a young man giving out water bottles at Mianyang Stadium, where 15,000 quake victims were sheltering. "My college had to close, but I didn't want to leave. I'm going to be a teacher, and one day I'll be able to tell my students what I did in the earthquake."

Some volunteers were disaster tourists, snapping pictures on their mobile phones and generally getting in the way, but others came with skills and equipment. Wang Zhanyou and three colleagues bought pickaxes, chains, shovels and specialised rescue equipment in Chengdu. Having previously worked in China's coal belt, extracting people trapped in collapsed coal mines, they talked their way through police roadblocks until they reached Beichuan, one of the worst-affected towns, where they found a mountain of rubble and eventually succeeding in digging out four survivors. "When my country is suffering from such a disaster, it's my responsibility to do something," said Wang.

In a country with few non-governmental organisations, where the government and the Communist Party are meant to provide for all the people's needs, the spirit of individual volunteerism is new. Some foreign rescue teams have also been welcomed, and international journalists allowed to move around more or less freely.

All media in China are controlled by the government. Shortly after the quake, the Central Publicity Department sent an instruction, as it does after all disasters, telling editors only to publish reports from Xinhua, the official news agency. But the directive was ignored, and hundreds of reporters were sent to Sichuan. According to EastSouth WestNorth, a website which analyses the Chinese media, reporters decided that "if their reports get spiked, they could serve as volunteers". Eventually, even the Communist Party mouthpiece decided to make a virtue of the propaganda department's failure. "We no longer take calamities as classified, confidential secrets, or 'negative information', and feel worried night and day because of possible rumours," said a People's Daily editorial.

Stung by international criticism of the way reporting of the Tibetan unrest was suppressed, and of attempts to censor coverage of the disruption to the Olympic torch relay, the government seems to have decided it would be counterproductive to try to hide a disaster on this scale.

China's last major earthquake, in the northeastern city of Tangshan, occurred just before the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Although 240,000 people died, the government refused all international assistance, touting instead "self-reliance", just like the Burmese junta today. Foreign journalists were barred from the city for seven years.

"Many people saw the quake as a sign from the gods that political changes were imminent," wrote Graham Earnshaw in 1983, as China correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, on visiting Tangshan. "The chairman died six weeks afterwards." Premier Zhou Enlai and the former Red Army general Zhu De died the same year, leading the Chinese to refer to the "curse of 1976".

After terrible winter snowstorms, riots by angry Tibetans and the disruption of the Olympic torch relay, China's leaders may worry that the portents in 2008 are equally bad. According to tradition, the decline of dynasties was foretold by natural disasters, signalling a withdrawal by the gods of the "mandate of heaven". …