Monday, May 19, 2008

Thoughts about the earthquake

Yesterday we had a three minute silence for the earthquake victims, as ordered by the State Council. Everyone stopped working, and on the street people stood in silence and cars stopped on the road. Cars blew their horns and the city set off its air raid sirens. It was really a remarkable display of united grief.

Many people logged off MSN for the three minutes as well, and put a little rainbow in front of their MSN names. (In parenthesis: Why has MSN become such a medium of showing your loyalties and your fervor for China? It’s sometimes overdone: If you don’t have a heart, you don’t love China! MSN is a new way of enforcing the mass line—and one that only targets those who have access to computers.)

This disaster is especially heartbreaking because of the sickeningly high number of schools that collapsed. There have been some tough questions about why those buildings so easily fell down. Government officials are making a public display of indignation. Hopefully something will actually be done. Fate is so cruel—if the earthquake had happened one day earlier, those kids would not have been at school.

All over Shanghai, donation drives are being held in parks and on the street. The names of people who donated to earthquake victims are posted in each neighborhood in Shanghai, with the least amount donated at the bottom of the list and the most donated at the top, and people really stop to inspect them. This may be an effort to ward off corruption, but it also seems kind of rotten to make how much you give public information.

Enforced mourning—you see it in many forms. Last night on TV, every station—every station—showed earthquake news (as ordered by the government). No soap operas, no movies, no other news that I saw. It was really striking. In a country with over 1.1 billion TV viewers, in a culture where most families turn on the TV in the evening as a matter of course, and leave it on, it was impossible to escape this news.

There was also news about Western coverage of the earthquake. (Only in insecure China is there news exclusively about news!) I found myself watching clips from CNN and Fox last night, with the Chinese anchors remarking how all the world is sorry about the earthquake. (Watching Fox again, even for just a moment, made me remember what a disgusting station it is—the Fox anchor was oohing and aahing and sighing. It’s CCTV’s rival—who can most handily disseminate propaganda?)

All the unfettered coverage is of course a remarkable event for China, and, as many have pointed out, it really shows how far China has come since the 1976 Tangshan earthquake. What is truly encouraging is that a couple hours after the quake, the government ordered Chinese journalists not to travel to Sichuan to report on it—instead, the news would go through state media—but many journalists just ignored the order. Later, the government changed its mind. Perhaps the message is finally getting through that free media makes a country stronger, not weaker. Even the Myanmar government seems to be paying attention: the leader of the junta recently pulled off a Wen Jiabao and went to the hardest-hit areas to commiserate with the victims, and the country is now letting in more aid. Thank goodness China didn’t follow the route of Burma. Seeing the two disasters side by side—one with real relief efforts and mostly unfettered media access, the other driven by pride, selfishness, and stupidity—emphasizes how far China has come since 1976.


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