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 (溫家寶), 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 doesn’t 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.