May 12

Amid the roar of mourning and remembrance over the horrible events of a year ago, there’s little new or significant I can contribute. But I can’t let the day disappear in silence, either.

Almost like 911, it seems everyone here remembers precisely where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. I was on my way to a photo shoot for a pre-Olympic event when I got the text message on my phone – there’d been a huge earthquake in Sichuan. The photographer was in the car with me and had a GPRS phone. He pulled up the story, which put us all at ease. The headline was something like, “Earthquake in Chengdu; no injuries reported.” The relief was short lived, and the headlines and text messages became increasingly dark.

The next day in my office, everyone seemed subdued. It was the children. All the children in the schools that collapsed like houses of cards. At least one of my colleagues cried as she talked to me about it. That day at the office of my main client, there was a call to donate blood, and so many hundreds of employees showed up they had to wait for many hours, the bloodmobile staying past 11 at night.

In figurative terms, May had been a shaky time for China. The Olympic Torch Relay that the government naively believed would be welcomed worldwide with open arms and smiling faces had started off as a catastrophe in London and then it achieved the impossible by becoming even worse in Paris. The riots in Tibet at the same time threatened to completely drown out China’s Olympic flame. There was the bright shining moment when, as if out of nowhere, an unknown female athlete in a wheelchair rallied China’s pride and galvanized Chinese around the world. But it was still a rough time, and “Tibet” seemed to be the one word on everyone’s mind. Until May 12.

Call if fate, or if you’re cynical enough (and I hope no one is), call it luck. As the earth roared and shifted and swallowed lives by the tens of thousands in Sichuan, everything else simply faded away, and there was only the tragedy. (Comparisons to 911 are inevitable; the big news in the weeks before was a gossipy story of a congressman’s affair with a staffer who was missing; it instantly became too trivial to even think about.) Gone were the arguments about who started the violence in Tibet or whether China should be made to shoulder responsibility for the crimes against humanity in Darfur. Everything was forgotten, and all anyone could think about was, how can we help?

All the blogs and media have stories about that today. If you search this blog, you’ll see there were many stories posted here about how the tragedy brought out the very best in China. Sadly but not surprisingly, this was followed by the stories of venal officials pocketing funds, refusing to answer parents’ questions, arresting journalists, covering up information about shoddy school construction, etc. But this time the good definitely out-shined the evil. China’s spirit of volunteerism, which many had denied exited, sprang to life as people dropped what they were doing and ran to the disaster site to help. Everyone I know gave as much money as we could. At my client’s office, the collection boxes were overflowing and had to be emptied frequently to make room for more donations.

No moment affected me more than the three minutes of silence held one week later, still my most vivid memory of the unhappy period. Hearing the sobbing and watching everyone, heads downward, struggle with a wave of emotion as the horns blared and traffic halted…. And again, another stereotype of China, where people think only of themselves, bites the dust.

This is already way longer than I intended. Thanks to China for showing all the world the great things it can do when it puts its mind to it.

Update: On a more personal note, please join me in wishing condolences to one of my very favorite bloggers (who by coincidence I linked to in this post) for his loss. Life, and death, goes on.

The Discussion: 14 Comments

Not to take away from the lives lost, but what has always irked me is that in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake there was little talk of improving building codes. Instead, we heard rhetoric to the tune of “man can not prevent natural disasters, etc. etc.” While man cannot prevent natural disasters, he certainly can take measures to diminish the magnitude by which they wreak havoc on humanity. When I lived in China from 2004-2007 I was constantly surrounded by examples of imminent disaster. Buildings without an ample amount of safety exits, poorly constructed dwellings, and general lack of any disaster crisis management preventative measures (i.e. fire drills, etc.) On the few occasions I would bring this up to administrators at my university where I was employed, I was smirked at and condescendingly informed “That will never happen. You Westerners worry too much.” Well, apparently that was the same attitude which prevailed in Sichuan.

We cannot change the past, and nothing takes the grief away from all those parents who lost children. But I wish, for a moment, China would take a break from feeling sorry for themselves, and explore how the impact of a disaster such as the Sichuan earthquake could be mitigated in the future.

May 12, 2009 @ 11:18 pm | Comment

Had to say, China is vrey big, that some people can take the chance to do something they want to do, they can block the media, they can stop the locals getting touch to the higher authorities, they can even threaten the scared victims.

But as the times goes by, it’s becoming harder and harder to act wildly against the law and public, nets friends will be the torch carrier who reveal the bad things.

It needs time though. I don’t know about the politics, but to those corrupt officals, we will surely to able to stand together with the government.

Therefore, we must help to contribute to expose those evils.

May 12, 2009 @ 11:40 pm | Comment

I don’t disagree at all about the building codes. A lot of those deaths were almost certainly unnecessary. But I also think a lot of Chinese people are trying to take action and demand justice for the shoddy construction, and aren’t just feeling sorry for themselves. And a lot of people did become actively involved in volunteerism and donating, so again, there’s more than just feeling sorry for themselves. Of course, there’s some of that, too, but that’s not unusual after something so devastating. America was one giant griefathon for five years after 911 – not that grief wasn’t justified, but there are limits, and there are more productive uses of one’s energy.

May 12, 2009 @ 11:48 pm | Comment

I totally agree with you in regards to the 9/11 comparison, and I think my point would apply to the US as well. The US’s response to 9/11 however, was very different from China’s response to the earthquake, yet still illustrates the same fundamental problem. Rather than sort through the actual causes of the disaster GWB took a cavalier approach, and declared that the terrorists are part of an “axis of evil” who “hates freedom,” and that we must eradicate from the face of the earth, since of course they hit us first. It’s basic bar fight mentality, applied on a much grander scale. A more prudent leader (and more importantly one who might have the luxury of catering to a more informed electorate) probably would have taken a different approach, and pondered why such an organization would take a cheap shot at the biggest kid on the school yard. I’m sure he would have come up with reasons of more substance than that they are fanatical nutjobs who hate freedom and want to destroy the United States.

What both examples illustrate is that it is important not to let emotion cloud methods of sound decision making. While people do have a natural need to grieve, it is also imperative to learn from the disaster and plan for the future. So yeah, in this respect, this would definitely apply to the US as well.

May 13, 2009 @ 12:02 am | Comment

Interesting to contrast this to the Taiwanese response to the 921 earthquake, which exposed the totally insufficient and corrupt nature of the building codes and their enforcement up until that point. Instances of beer cans having been used as reinforcing were not uncommon. Thankfully the authorities got their act together and drafted a new set of codes, and made sure they were enforced – hence my not getting crushed to death when a similarly powerful earth quake struck back in 2002.

The mainland just hasn’t reached this point yet. Cleaning up corrupt building practices is something which the government isn’t going to get around to soon, believe it or not, but random executions doesn’t actually do much of a job of deterring people. The vice-president of the university I worked for in Nanjing was arrested (and rumoured to have been executed) over blatant skimming on materials (the buildings in question weren’t even finished, but already the concrete beams were beginning to sag and rusticles were forming on them), but this was far from the only case, was not publicised (hence no deterrence effect, funny that), and the VP may well have been a scape-goat anyway.

May 13, 2009 @ 12:24 am | Comment

Learning our hard lessons from Sichuan’s March 2008 earthquake quiz competitions
By Qian Gang

May 13, 2009 @ 7:29 am | Comment

How to commemorate 5.12 this year is like how to write a revolutionary movie. The script has to be based on the political need rather than humanity. The theme of this year’s anniversary is to aggrandize the heroism exhibited the Chinese people who survived the quake and who can overcome the adversaries, for which TV shows and stage performances with celebrities are underway. Official groups gather in ground zero to lend encouragement and condolences. Eventually, the morale is so elevated and the mind is so distracted that one is not supposed to dwell on personal tragedy and point finger at the shoddy construction. The commemoration goes almost like a big party.

A unique tragedy engendered by the one-child policy fell on many couples who lost their only child in the quake and in many other mishaps and are no longer able to bear child. They lost their parenthood forever and have to live the rest of their lives with the painful memories. Some people remarked that 5.12 should be designated as China’s Ex-mother’s Day to make people aware of the tragedy which you won’t see else where.

May 13, 2009 @ 9:54 am | Comment

A very sad affair, but as FOARP says I doubt much is going to change for the moment. I’m not sure what else I can add, other than there doesn’t have to be a repeat of this.

May 14, 2009 @ 1:52 am | Comment

I think the more apt comparison would be Hurricane Katrina to 5.12. Both incidents there is no one single human enemy that fingers could be pointed to to ease the pain, or diffuse blame or responsibility. What is more useful about these two comparisons, is that it puts all the preconceptions about US and Chinese ideals and values on their head.

I was in Chengdu when the Earthquake hit and saw the rescue efforts with my own eyes, and worked donation lines with my own hands. While there are many things that make me cringe in pain about the communist party, the all out effort by the government put forth after the earthquake was inspiring.

Unfortunately however, the actions taken by local, and central government officials to cover up the school building collapse, and the refusal to accept any responsibility of wrongdoing almost washes all of that away goodwill.

And this was a time after Katrina. I cannot remember any experience in my young life, that made me question my government’s values and priorities as much as that failure to the citizens of New Orleans. I don’t blame the faults of the US, more the incompetence of the Bush Administration. I think witnessing how real consequences can be had from making silly mistakes awoke me out of my apathetic slumber of living a comfortable American Lifestyle, and forced me to take a much more critical view of my leaders and the world around me. I think that was the first step in a series that led me to vote for Obama.

To commemorate 5.12 I showed Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke” to my college students, to give them perspective on human loss in a natural disaster, and to also show the failings of when a Government is not held responsible for their shortcomings, especially construction. None of my students had even heard of Katrina.

I told them that I grew up in Florid, and this very event could have happened to me with a similar hurricane, left to die stranded in a house waiting for help to arrive. What if their school had collapsed in an earthquake and killed them, or their fellow classmates, and it was the builders fault? What would they do then?

They didn’t have an answer.

May 14, 2009 @ 9:10 am | Comment

I think witnessing how real consequences can be had from making silly mistakes …

Tragically, the mistakes made over Katrina were far more egregious than silly. Bush had gutted the relief agencies of talented professionals and stuffed them full of party yes-men. That a trader of Arabian horses was invested with all the power at that moment, and failed the test with flying colors, sums up the hubris and inanity of the Bus age. There’s plenty of incompetency to go around in the CCP as well, but in terms of getting things done and responding they proved far better than the US, at least in terms of rapid mobilization and getting help to the devastated area. It really was China at its best, and I’m glad to see many Chinese are holding firm on holding local governments to account for the bad construction. We all know what they are up against.

May 14, 2009 @ 10:05 am | Comment

Here’s the thing. California, which god knows has a really dysfunctional government these days, has still done a lot in terms of building codes and emergency procedures, and you know what, this mechanistic stuff really works. California is screwed up but we do get how to respond in disasters, and when there are huge screw-ups, they get corrected – probably because there are so many disasters we get a lot of practice with this stuff.

So, yes, building codes, emergency protocols. They work.

May 14, 2009 @ 2:06 pm | Comment

Feel very ambivalently about this anniversary myself.

For me it represents:

1 – Memories of the 921 quake in Taiwan, how Beijing politicized and interfered in international relief efforts, and how Taiwanese responded to the quake with pure charity rather than tainting things with jingoistic flag waving.

2 – Memories of having been being assaulted by Chinese nationalists in the West, then having other Chinese nationalists investigating the assault on myself use the Sichuan quake as an excuse to cease their investigation (assuming such an investigation had ever seriously been underway) because the quake had mysteriously made questioning the behavior of violent, Chinese nationalist thugs ‘inappropriate’.

3 – Being badgered by Jingoistic flag waving nationalistic Chinese cyber-goons about whether I had donated money to the Sichuan relief effort, the idea being that my donations would demonstrate whether I was ‘for’ or ‘against’ China.

So in summary. . .

All respects to the dead, but fuck the flag-waving goons.

May 22, 2009 @ 11:49 pm | Comment

Can’t say I disagree about the goons – but many of those waving the flags sincerely cared, don’t you think?

May 23, 2009 @ 12:31 am | Comment

Sure, many cared, but many others (a sizable minority?) latched onto it as an excuse for more nationalistic crap. The behavior of that second group has, just in my opinion, seriously tainted the whole thing.

There was none of this ugly taint associated with the 921 Earthquake in Taiwan.

May 23, 2009 @ 3:25 pm | Comment

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