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China quake response balances candor and control PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Reuters, Beijing - Faced with China's biggest earthquake in 32 years, the ruling Communist Party has met the calamity with a flurry of mobilization, candor and control that shows what has changed, and what has not, in its recipe for rule.

After the quake pulverized southwest China, killing 10,000 or more in Sichuan province alone, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao rushed to comfort survivors and direct rescue efforts.

State television showed Wen scrambling over rubble to comfort residents, along with near unbroken coverage of developments and official announcements.

Zhang Guangyou, an ex-reporter for the official Xinhua news agency who covered the Tangshan earthquake in 1976 when up to 300,000 perished, said Party leaders have learned to be more candid about bad news.

"Nowadays you can't hide anything. Nothing stays a secret with the Internet," he said. "Leading officials also understand they must be seen to be acting and must tell some basic facts. Not like Tangshan when everything was kept secret for so long."

Back then the country was near the end of Mao Zedong's radical Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when even mild criticism of Mao was taboo. The limited open reporting on Tangshan was wrapped in uplifting propaganda, said Zhang.

The Tangshan quake was magnitude 7.8, only slightly less than the latest quake, but it struck the northeast city at its heart and at night, trapping many people in their beds, Zhang recalled.

Zhang borrowed his boss' aged German limousine to race to the city and spent weeks there among piles of corpses, he said.


Now 77, he also recalled in a recent memoir that in 1975 he wrote secret reports for top officials on a devastating flood of the Huai River that killed thousands, perhaps up to 30,000.

To keep the devastation as secret as possible, flights around the drowned plains of central China were diverted, he said.

"You could never get away with that these days," Zhang said. "But that was quite normal then. Nobody wanted to alarm Mao."

Yet China's response to its latest natural disaster also bears hallmarks of the top-down, mobilizing-style of rule that the Party has embraced since Mao's time.

The Politburo Standing Committee, the Party's inner-circle, met late on Monday and issued a volley of orders to mobilize thousands of officials, troops and citizens, the People's Daily reported.

The newspaper lauded that sweeping response as testimony to the strength of China's one-Party rule.

"Faced with such a grim natural disaster, the Party and government ... are the powerful social mobilizing force of the socialist state," a commentary in the newspaper stated.

"Any hardship can be overcome."

Compared with the jarring comparison of Myanmar's tardy and suspicious response to a devastating hurricane, the Chinese Party's mobilizing power is all the more telling.

"China can react at these moments with impressive speed," said Wyndham James, the China country chief for the Save the Children Charity. "They can concentrate resources and attention in a way few governments can."

In snowstorms and icy rains that paralyzed southern China early this year, the leadership also poured thousands of troops, officials and engineers into restoring rail and power lines -- and also presented it as a proud moment of national unity.

But controlling dissent is also part of the Party's recipe of power, especially as it prepares for the showcase Beijing Olympic Games in August, and officials have warned citizens not to spread rumors and "ensure overall social stability".

But sooner or later, said Zhang, more and more citizens will want to know why schools and hospitals and housing blocks crumpled while government offices apparently stood firm.

"Every parent will want to know who bears responsibility for the children," he said.

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