Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Perhaps there is a silver lining in all these...

Yesterday marks a week's anniversary of the deadly Sichuan earthquake. So many heart-rending stories of lives lost and of families torn apart, are intertwined with heroic narratives of the bravery and dedication displayed by soldiers and rescue workers, and of the humane and unflinching leadership displayed by Premier Wen and President Hu.

As search and rescue teams race relentlessly against time to save lives while the window of opportunity for doing so is fast closing, and as the recently displaced citizens try desparately to survive the aftermath in a devastated environment -- perhaps, just perhaps, there is a silver lining to all of these grief and loss...

Over the past few days, I have been reflecting on the emotional tremours that I felt in my heart as I watch newscasts of the quake relief efforts. The sick feeling at the pit of the stomach however was unfortunately not a new sensation to me. Setting aside the dreary backdrop of unjust wars in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, the previous time that I felt physically sick watching the news was when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005; the other time before that, the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004; and the other time before that, 9/11 in 2001. Finally, my earliest experience of feeling immense heartache while watching the news, was June the 4th, 1989. Of course, the most recent one included the Burma cyclone that struck less than a fortnight before the Sichuan earthquake. In fact, the scenes of decayed bodies floating in waters along the Irrawaddy delta were eerily similar to those in downtown New Orleans back in 2005.

I have said in my previous post that the "transparency regarding the scale of the disaster, and of the progress (including lack thereof) of search and rescue efforts" is both Good and Ugly. I had wanted to say a few more words about what I meant by this.

On all the previous occasions when I felt sick watching the news, there was this immense helplessness, as an onlooker, of not being able to do anything while human lives were literally perishing before our eyes. Yes, we can donate money, send messages of support and prayers, wear black armbands or colour ribbons, hold benefits gala or candlelight vigils to show how much we share the pain of the victims even when we are not directly affected. But much of these are symbolic gestures, which might make us feel slightly better, but which are hardly helpful to the victims as they stare calamity in the face. Even when we generously and unhesitatingly donate money and various kinds of aid, we rely on the NGOs but more importantly, the Governments, to get material help to the people (that is, if the regimes in question are not actively killing its own people in the first place).

Even more important, we rely on the media to tell us what is happening when and where, to show us where injustices were done and/or what damages were made, and to see what kinds of help are needed by the victims and what have actually been done to help them when disasters - whether manmade or natural - strike. Yet, if the recent furore over the recent Tibetan riots were anything to go by, the media, even when they are supposedly independent from the state, are not the most reliable in this regard (and for those who have been paying attention to American politics, the rot has been set in for quite some time now). Impartiality, integrity, even basic journalistic honesty, seem like quaint ideals when reporters and news editors are working for profit-driven media conglomerates, and when the spaces for public discourse are heavily circumscribed by powerful political vested interests.

More important than even the above however, are the attitudes of people towards their fellow human beings. Do people care in the first place? Would they care about preventing the irreparable loss of lives of those who may have different racial or ethnic backgrounds, or who are poor and illiterate and marginalised, or who hold different political views? And if they do care, would they make their concerns for the fate of their fellow citizens be known vociferously, passionately, and hold the government to account to save and care for all? Would they demand that the media report the truth, rather than sweep it under the carpet because the truth may sometimes - in fact, quite often - be ugly?

It is on these points, that I found that there perhaps exist some silver linings after all to the current catastrophe. Before now, I have to admit, I was rather pessimistic about how China would handle a major disaster event like the Sichuan earthquake. Such pessimism relates not only to the one-party regime, but also the people. There is a Chinese saying, "Lives are like stalks of grass", and the lives of ordinary people have often been considered cheap by those in power, whether it was Mao talking of the "human wave" warfare tactic and his various purges that resulted in the deaths of millions, or the rolling in of the tanks to crackdown on dissenting citizens in Tiananmen Square in the late Deng era. More worryingly, the immense political and economic upheavals of the previous decades seem to have engendered a casual disregard for human life within the ordinary citizenry itself, where self survival trumps all considerations in a newly capitalised society, with the cavaliar flouting of health and safety regulations for one's workers, selling goods with known harmful substances to one's customers, even to babies and children, as well as increase in human trafficking as both internal and external migration step up. The ease with which some members of the public could issue death threats to his or her fellow citizens simply because of a difference of political opinions, as evidenced by the Grace Wang affair, gave me little confidence that the value of human life could be respected to its fullest in contemporary Chinese society. Coupled with the ingrained Chinese mentality that dirty laundry should never ever be washed in public, as evidenced by the official reluctance to act speedily at the onset of the SARS crisis, and especially in times of national pride such as the coming of the Olympic Games, when it is considered treasonous to air negative views or stories, so when I first heard the news broke of the 7.9 Richter scale earthquake in the Sichuan province, I was more afraid of what would not be done to help, rather than what damage had already been done by nature.

It is with immense relief, therefore, that I realised that the past week has shown how both the Chinese people and the Chinese government have courageously stepped up to the plate.

Unlike the many previous times when natural disasters struck China, whether it was the snowstorms as recently as the beginning of this year, or the many times when severe flooding have occurred in Southern China, this time, the whole nation - including the Government - pulled together in ways that are qualitatively different from previous disasters.

A blogger has already pointed out that, the lowering of the national flag and the official three-day mourning for the loss of lives of ordinary citizens is absolutely unprecedented in the People's Republic of China's history. As he eloquently writes:

For the first time, a Chinese government has embraced the idea that any human life, even that of ordinary human lives, has value. Actually, this is a very western concept, and is a very important step on the road to democracy. Is this not a valuable change in China’s reforms and opening up? This will make it that much more difficult for any Chinese government to dismiss the value of any Chinese lives which are lost in the future, whether they are due to natural disaster, or war, or for political reasons. (China Vortex, blog post)
Not only has the value of the individual human life been elevated in mainland Chinese consciousness, but for the first time, it is okay to openly talk about things that aren't working in the current system without being considered treasonous. Grieving parents openly questioned the shoddy construction of the schools, the collapse of which have caused the deaths of hundreds of their beloved children, many of whom were their only child under the one-child policy. The fact that not only are these criticisms being made to so-called "outsiders" (foreign journalists), but are actually represented in the country's mainstream media (if not state media, which has deliberately downplayed such stories), is unprecedented. The parents themselves are able to differentiate the corruption at local governance levels (a theme that was explored, by the way, in the film "Blind Mountain", which I saw at DIFF and which I have been meaning to blog about) - which need serious overhauling - from Party leadership, whom they continue to support and to whom they remain grateful. This allows the Chinese government to have this question of school construction being raised as a subject of official enquiry at one of its media briefings (CCTV Report a few days ago), paving the way for the airing of such ugly truths - even if they are only restricted to local levels at present without a deeper reflection of the one-party regime - so that they could be rectified for the good of future generations.

As several commentators have said, we need to work on ensuring that something good would emerge from the disaster, and not to let the valuable lessons be buried along with the many victims.

Reading the online reactions about the disaster, many people have lamented how 2008 has so far proved to be such an inauspicious year for China -- what with the snowstorms back in January/February, the Tibetan riots in March and the mass protests against the Olympic torch relay, and now this most severe of natural disaster in the country's history happened in May.

Perhaps we should instead, take a slightly different view and try to count our blessings even at such difficult times. When there is nothing that humans could do to stop the movements of the tectonic plates and the earthquake has to occur some time this year, it was relatively fortunate that it happened now, rather than earlier or later in the year.

If it had happened earlier in the year and coincided with the snowstorms and the extreme cold, China would simply not have been able to cope and there would have been even higher casualties and even direr need for shelter than is presently the case. Displaced survivors would not have been able to stay overnight in the open sports stadiums or in flimsy tents if not for the mild weather. Even the rain, which has hindered rescue efforts, might have also meant at the same time that some trapped survivors could get some access to water as they lay in wait for the rescuers to arrive.

The Tibetan riots sparked off waves of nationalism among Chinese compatriots both within and outside China, and while that has its many Bad and Ugly consequences, in the process Chinese citizens have shown themselves capable of using the full range of modern communications technologies available to systematically search for vital information, and to self-organise among themselves for humanitarian purposes this time round. Citizens and newspaper reporters were emboldened to share information without official approval in the wake of their experience of self-organising counter-protests over the Tibetan issue:
When the earthquake occurred on May 12, the Central Publicity Department acted the usual way for an emergency incident. An order was sent down to the various local media not to gather news on their own and stick to the Xinhua/CCTV reports. Thus the Central Publicity Department quickly found out that the order was effective. The various city and provincial reporters rushed out to the frontlines overnight. One newspaper had almost 50 out in the field. Everybody said that at a time of national emergency, they could not worry too much. If their reports get spiked, they could serve as volunteers.

Once the reporters arrived at the front lines, they threw themselves into gathering news while blending in with the military soldiers, police officers and civilians. They completely put the ban order from the Central Publicity Department out of mind. On the Internet, there was also a lot of information and opinions that came spontaneously from the civilian sector. The Central Publicity Department did not have the ability to stop this. They could only ask Xinhua and CCTV to increase their "opinion leadership" by denouncing the things that deviate from the official position, such as questions about earthquake prediction and shoddy construction of school buildings. (ESWN Translated News Reportage)
Even the dreaded "human flesh search engines" have been put to positive use for the first time, finding out the people behind the building company who did the right thing and ensured that the constuction of a school in Beichuan was built per specifications even when it meant countering local government corruption, thus ensuring that, ten years later, the school remains standing whilst those of other schools collapsed in the area (ESWN Commentary). And - this is the miraculous bit - the "human flesh searchers" actually respected the manager's wish to remain anonymous rather than have his personal details splashed across the interwebs even if it was for praise.

More crucially, if the earthquake has happened at other times rather than now, we might not have seen such moral leadership from Beijing. It was because of the Tibetan protests, that the Chinese CCP elders recognised, perhaps for the first time for a Party more used to controlling than pandering to its populace, that there is a well of popular support behind the direction the current administration is taking, and that it can afford to allow media access, which has a better outcome for the Party than engineering media blackouts. The fact that both foreign and domestic media can roam freely in the affected regions to gather news stories, and thus ensuring transparency of the scale of the disaster and its aftermath, as well as the corresponding progress or lack thereof of rescue and relief efforts, is perhaps one of several unintended positive outcomes of the Tibetan affair.

The fact that the earthquake followed closely in the wake of the cyclone in Burma, whose military government garnered worldwide opprobrium for its callous unconcern for the lives of its own people, served as a reverse lesson for the Chinese government on how NOT to behave at times of national emergency. Especially with the world's focus on China precisely because this is the Olympic year, recent events have given the Chinese government added incentives to act with moral leadership when disaster did strike. If the Sichuan earthquake has happened at other times or in other years, such moral impetus to do the right thing might have been lost.

Seen in such light, there is perhaps a silver lining in all these, even as we mourn for the tragic loss of the many who perished. To honour the memories of the dead means that we must not refrain from unflinchingly and unapologetically examining the causes and consequences of the disaster, and have the perseverance and commitment to rectify the Bad and preserve the Good, even when doing so might reveal something Ugly about ourselves.

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At Tue May 20, 11:40:00 a.m. IST, Blogger laichungleung said...

Every great post deserves at least one inane comment from yours truly.

Actually I don't have anything to say to embarrass myself except this is another great post....

I was reading the NYTIMES the other day and it says the central propaganda department or something similar did try to control the news from the get go. But to no avail. All the news agencies are pretty much driven by the market, and probably by their own conscience to report on the quake.

At Fri May 23, 02:40:00 p.m. IST, Blogger 梁巔巔 said...

Okay okay~~~~~~ ^^

But, hey, you can send your email address to my email address ma! :)

Ok la. I respect you ga ma.

Of cooourse you can continue to comment on my blog la! Please~~~~ Heee heee~ ^~

At Fri May 23, 02:40:00 p.m. IST, Blogger 梁巔巔 said...

Wei, do you know to write Chinese? :)

At Sun May 25, 02:18:00 a.m. IST, Blogger Snowdrops said...

Thanks so much LCL for your kind compliment. I'm still not sure I've said everything I wanted to say about the disaster though, but unfortunately that was the best I could do for the time being... You're right that the Chinese local media are also driven by the market, and to a certain extent, conscience. Thank god for that.

Victor, so glad to see you back! (I was afraid you'd be mad at my last reply). I do write in Chinese (but I am no longer sure how many words I'd still remember). The problem is that I can't type Chinese at all, so my blog would have to remain in English unfortunately. You're welcome to comment in Chinese though if you prefer :)


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