A reporter looks at the Sichuan earthquake, and her own life

Most of my friends here know that of all the reporters I’ve worked with in China, Mei Fong of the Wall Street Journal always has always occupied a special place in my heart. Now, after reading this extraordinary article of her trip to the site of the earthquake, tied in with the personal heartache she was going through at the time, that “special place” is more special than ever.

Each of us who has ever worked with or known Mei Fong in any capacity is not just lucky. We’re blessed.


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.



A heart wrencher.

[Update: This one, too, is well worth a read.]

I originally wrote a long post with long excerpts and then just deleted it all. The story speaks for itself and I can’t add anything of value. If you make it to the end, you’ll see the reporter closes the story with a strong implication that there is involvement from the central government here, not just local officials.