China in Transition

The Great Sichuan Earthquake Changes China
- Crisis as an Opportunity for Reform

Chi Hung KWAN
Consulting Fellow, RIETI

The major earthquake that struck Sichuan Province on May 12 this year brought into stark relief the dark side of China's remarkable globally acknowledged economic growth, including widening regional disparities and corrupt bureaucracy, in addition to its inadequate disaster-prevention systems. Fortunately, though, the Chinese government's rapid response and strenuous efforts in relief operations have been earning high marks in China and other countries. Chinese society has remained stable as the public has felt increased faith in its government in the wake of this enormous natural disaster. Major progress toward freedom of the press, the formation of civil society, and greater cooperation with other countries was observed over the course of the relief operations. Moreover, this disaster allowed Chinese people to reassess the relationship between citizens and their government, between individuals and society, and between China and other countries, presenting them with a valuable opportunity to engage in social and political reforms.

Institutional Distortions Aggravating Losses from the Disaster

The number of fatalities or missing persons caused by the earthquake is nearing 90,000. This figure includes many students who were in school when the earthquake struck. The collapse of many structures, including school buildings, was directly responsible for the large number of victims. It is worth-noting that, in addition to the uncontainable power of nature, known as an "act of God," this disaster had a "man-made" element to it, reflecting the realities of China.

To begin with, the area where the earthquake took place was a deprived region located in inland China. People in this region are resigned to living in humble abodes built by piling bricks without suitable reinforcing steel, let alone earthquake-proofing. The latest disaster brought to public attention this and other problematic gaps that exist between China's coastal regions, which have been enjoying remarkable development, and inland regions left behind in the nation's economic growth.

Local governments did not have sufficient funds to invest in education, such as in the construction of school buildings, as poverty resulted in very limited fiscal revenue. Many school buildings collapsed in this latest earthquake, but buildings housing government agencies received relatively minor damage. Given this, administrative institutions are assumed to have been given priority over schools in the budget allocation. This appears to be a natural consequence of the present political framework, which receives no supervision from citizens (taxpayers) and tends to prioritize the interests of the elite (bureaucrats).

Moreover, there is a widespread understanding among Chinese citizens that many buildings collapsed in the earthquake because construction expenses had been illegally diverted by builders and bureaucrats in collusive relationships, and construction work had been slipshod. This has prompted a growing public outcry, with calls for the individuals involved in the illegal acts to be held accountable.

Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. To prevent a recurrence of this tragedy, government surveillance must be strengthened through fair elections, freedom of the press, a fair judicial system, and checks and balances among the legislative, judicial, and executive branches. Democratization is necessary to enable the allocation of public funds based on the will of the people.

Disaster-Relief Operations Praised

The Chinese government responded extremely quickly to the earthquake. Rescue parties arrived in the afflicted region within four hours of the temblor occurring. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao visited the area on the day of the earthquake, and spearheaded relief operations. In addition, the Chinese government willingly accepted assistance proposed by Japan and other countries, including disaster-relief teams, medical teams, and other forms of physical support.

The Chinese media, which had been regarded as mere government propaganda tools, has been striving to inform citizens of the truth about the earthquake, and the Chinese government has adopted the position of accepting its reports. China Central Television and other government-controlled media are broadcasting conditions in the afflicted area, centering on relief operations, on a real-time basis. Reports on the earthquake have filled Chinese websites and newspapers. Some of these reports have been critical in tone. In addition to the Chinese media, foreign news organizations were allowed to report freely on the earthquake. This freedom was nowhere in evidence at the time of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) scare five years ago, let alone the Great Tangshan Earthquake 32 years ago.

Terrible conditions in the devastated area, which have been reported vividly in the media, brought home to Chinese citizens how powerless they were, and awakened them to the importance of compassion for others. This change in perception is in turn encouraging groups, including nonprofit organizations (NPOs) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to expand their network of private-sector relief activities. Many volunteers are traveling to the afflicted area to offer support. Companies and individuals are raising huge donations. The rising sense of participation in society among citizens and the growth of civil society are even more meaningful than the amounts donated.

Before this earthquake, the Chinese government had traditionally clamped down on antiestablishment speech and actions in fear of social destabilization. For instance, the government had severely restricted media reports and the operations of NPOs and NGOs. The post-earthquake Chinese experience, however, suggests that freedom of the press and private organizations can contribute to social stability. Allowing a free press and the activities of private organizations in fields other than disaster relief will be a challenge for China going forward.

Improved International Image of China

In external relations, Chinese citizens are impressed with the assistance their country received from overseas. International cooperation through relief operations has helped Chinese people to overcome their "anti-foreign" feelings, which had lurked in their hearts as a result of a string of humiliating events since the Opium War of 1839-1842. In particular, the activities of the Japanese rescue team in the afflicted Sichuan region, including the silent prayers for quake victims reported by Xinhua News Agency, touched the hearts of Chinese citizens, and changed their impressions of Japan for the better.

Meanwhile, the way people in other countries see China has also changed markedly. Massive pro-Beijing Olympics actions by Chinese students seen at torch relay sites around the globe and the Chinese boycott of French supermarket chain Carrefour following the riots in Tibet in March were criticized as "narrow-minded nationalism" in other countries. In contrast, the patriotic spirit based on the humanitarianism Chinese people displayed through relief operations for the latest disaster has been winning praise worldwide. It has helped China restore its international image, which had been damaged by the Tibetan issue.

"Distress Rejuvenates a Nation"

Many say there is opportunity in crisis. So perhaps a country can turn a crisis into an opportunity by adding a dash of agility. With this in mind, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao wrote on a blackboard, "Distress rejuvenates a nation" (meaning that a nation prospers when it faces many disasters and difficulties), to encourage students when he visited a classroom at a school in the quake zone. The strong will and unity of people that result from disasters can inspire a nation. To make the best use of this opportunity, China must speed up reforms not only in its economic system but also its social and political systems. As part of these efforts, in addition to promoting democracy and the rule of law, China must let the buds of freedom of the press and the formation of civil society bloom.

June 12, 2008

June 12, 2008