12 May 2009

The Real Aftershock is Yet to Come 真正的餘震還未來

Exactly a year ago, an 8.0-magnitude earthquake ravaged the heartland province of Sichuan, killing an estimated 70,000 and leaving another 17,000 missing. Among them were thousands of students crushed by collapsed schools, most of their bodies buried deep under the rubble. Weeping parents, suddenly childless, struggled to fathom how the wrath of nature could be so cruelly selective, flattening school houses but leaving surrounding buildings standing. Premier Wen Jiabao (家寶), determined to score public relations points in the lead up to the Beijing Olympics, promised a full investigation into the so-called “tofu dregs” (豆腐渣) construction.

A week before the one-year anniversary of the disaster, the Sichuan provincial government finally got around to publishing the first ever official tally of students killed by collapsed schools. Officials blamed the high death toll on force majeure and diverted media attention to the heroic rescue efforts and the reconstruction swimmingly underway. Human rights watchdogs and the Western press cried foul, and even the normally spineless Hong Kong media ran investigative reports on alleged cover-ups at various levels of government. So far Beijing has yet to break its silence on the controversy, and Wen’s promises to the survivors are yet to be made good.

China began its fiscal decentralization in the late 1970s, giving regional governments enormous administrative powers and virtual economic autonomy. The policy enriched a generation of low-ranking officials and turned them into local lords. In these past several months, however, they have been dogged by the school construction scandal that, like ticking time bombs around their necks, would go off as soon as leaders on high start demanding answers to allegations of negligence and corruption. Diffusing a bomb is a delicate art: it requires great rhetoric and the power of persuasion. To that end, local officials are quick to invoke the self-deceiving, self-congratulating sentiments of duo nan xin bang (多難興邦; literally, through many disasters our nation prospers), the four words that Wen Jiabao famously wrote on a classroom blackboard to motivate survivors during one of his visits to the disaster zone a year ago. Officials urge grieving parents, most of them impoverished peasants from the mountainous regions, to move beyond the past and focus on rebuilding their lives. If only the surviving family members can look at things on the bright side, then even a part man-made disaster has a silver lining.

But when cheap propaganda doesnt work, local governments resort to the use of hush money, confident that money can make the world go around as it so often does for them on the receiving end. Officials show up at the parents’ doorstep with dubiously worded contracts, offering cash payments in exchange for their silence and acquiescence of legal rights. Veteran New York Times journalist Edward Wong likened them to “a multinational corporation facing a product liability suit.”

But in the crass world of local politics, a carrot is so often followed by a stick. Stubborn parents who continue to press for answers and busybody volunteers who assist them are uniformly harassed, threatened, detained and beaten. Street protests are quelled by riot police and trips to Beijing intercepted. Local officials ordered sites of collapsed schools to be bulldozed, in a not-so-subtle effort to destroy critical evidence of shoddy construction. Victims’ lists and construction blueprints overnight became “state secrets.” Outrageous as these actions are, they are not unfamiliar to those who follow Chinese politics. Just last year, parents whose children died from or were sickened by tainted baby formula encountered similar intimidation tactics and found their names added to the list of enemies of the state. Dr. Gao Yaojie (高耀潔), world renowned AIDS activist who has been speaking out about China’s silent epidemic, spends her octogenarian years under house arrest and carries suicide pills in her pocket as a last resort against torture.

So far the carrot-and-stick approach appears to be working. A year after the disaster, over half of the protesting parents have dropped out of the fight and cowered to the government’s iron fist and the daily reality of abject poverty. Attrition warfare, after all, has always been the Communists’ strongest suit. More worrying still for Beijing, the May 12 quake has exposed the widespread corruption and gross injustice that have corroded the party’s rank-and-file. Whereas propaganda and media control might have helped mitigate localized unrest in the past, they are as obsolete as buggy whips against the Internet and the blogosphere. When grassroots activism finally takes hold, no amount of goodwill from double-digit economic growths or a successful Olympic Games or World Expo can prevent an all-out social uprising. That tangible threat, the real aftershock of the May 12 quake, is keeping the head honchos in Beijing up at night. But don’t expect any sympathy from anyone, for even the worst case of insomnia would be a walk in the park compared to the heartbreak of losing one’s only child.

This afternoon, President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) led a somber memorial service in the devastated town of Yingxiu (映秀鎮), epicenter of the quake, and paid respect to the thousands of children perished a year ago. What they and their surviving families deserve, instead of more publicity stunts, is an honest commitment from the central government to getting to the bottom of the school construction scandal that precipitated a preventable tragedy. Our children deserve better.


  1. Shouldn't n never forget,
    should learn from pain n history,
    ease the pain n grow strong......

  2. Wow, you read fast! A comment within minutes of my upload.

    I share your sentiment. Like 9-11, this is not something that anyone can forget.


  3. Your article is very good but very sad at the same time. It reminded me of exactly last year when the earthquake hit. It's all very sad to see so much corruption happening in many levels of the governtment officials. Sad that many of these victims will not get the proper closure they deserve. My heart goes out to all the people who lost their loved ones in the quake....


  4. Thanks, JC. The whole incident was and has been very sad indeed, and on so many levels. I got choked up a few times when I wrote the article.


  5. Very insightful, shows that there's a lot beneath the surface. My sympathy goes to the victims of the quake.

    At the same time however, I still think the Chinese government has come a long way. Any clean-up to the administration will take decades to come, but at the same time, this is no excuse for all the cover-ups and abuse.

    I do believe that the change will come one day, but I also think that Chinese people need to take responsibly and increase their sense of social responsibility. Education is where it all starts.

  6. Thanks for your comment, Karin.

    By "Chinese government" I suppose you mean the central government in Beijing. I agree with you that they have come a long way and they are really trying.

    My main gripe (and anger) in the article is directed toward the local governments at the province, prefecture, county, town and village levels. China is a large country with an even larger population. There are at least five or six different administrative divisions and each one is more corrupt than the last. The system allows the worst of human nature to manifest itself.

    There is only so much Beijing can monitor and control. The more I read about the situation, the more hopeless it seems. It is a problem that doesn't seem to have a solution. At least for now.


  7. Just like 9-11, just like the tsunami from the SE Asia regions and just like this earthquake that happened last year. Funny thing is how people learn about these happenings from history, but tend to forget as time passes by.

  8. i happened to watch the State Council weekly press conference and listened to an official answering question from a western journalist regarding why the government failed to disclose any details of the investigation on so many schools being destroyed in the earthquake and was angry about this official's craps. yes it's quite hopeless. but deep down i feel i should not give up hope.

  9. I am very curious as to what the official said to the journalist. Local officials have little experience dealing with the press (let alone the international press) and are prone to say things that make you go "huh?"

  10. Mortifying, that's all I can say, both on nature's front and on the political front, and all the more upsetting that they haven't really finished "rebuilding" (if there is such a word in the Chinese dictionary, I mean true re-building, from inside -out) when the country is awashed with deluges and other disasters.

    I have to admit that the Chinese government have come a long way, in a way; but is it also a long way (only?) for the select few? Isn't it that the long way is not a one-directional vector but going in opposite directions tearing the privileged and the deprived further apart? What happened was atrocious, and I just recalled the 1 July demonstration this year and the rallying calls I heard and the banners that I saw, and my eyes could well up all over again...