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China's Earthquake After Shock

By Alexandra Harney, Devin T. Stewart | May 15, 2008

Seismic signal from Sichuan earthquake.
Image courtesy of MacEsc (CC).

One of the deadliest earthquakes in decades hit southwestern China this week, prompting a quick response from Beijing which was even praised by the Dalai Lama. Nevertheless, the death toll could surpass 50,000. Devin Stewart of Policy Innovations interviews Alexandra Harney, author of The China Price: The True Cost of Chinese Competitive Advantage, who comments from Shanghai on how China is tackling this obstacle as it also prepares for the Summer Olympics.

What is the mood in China after the earthquake?

The mood is overwhelmingly sympathetic to the people of Sichuan and the horror of what they are experiencing. State television is covering the earthquake around the clock, and friends of mine are staying up late to watch the rescue efforts, keeping the radio on when they are in the car to catch the latest news from Sichuan. Online forums are abuzz with discussions about the disaster.

Has the government's response to the earthquake been satisfactory?

On balance, people seem very happy with the government's response. I have been impressed with how quickly premier Wen Jiabao arrived on the scene, and the compassion with which he has addressed the survivors of the disaster. Online there has been some criticism of the government's failure to predict the quake and its resistance to allowing foreign aid workers into affected areas, but often other netizens have defended the government. A good Chinese friend of mine was particularly impressed with the bravery of the People's Liberation Army soldiers who parachuted into the area at great personal risk. He felt that the government had clearly put contingency plans into place since the outbreak of SARS in 2003 that allowed it to respond more quickly and effectively.

Does anyone talk about the superstitions in China surrounding natural disasters?

I am sure there is discussion about this issue, but I haven't seen it. The discussion on television has been very focused on the rescue efforts and has not devoted any time to superstitions. But there is no denying that it has been a tough year, weather-wise, for the government—first the snowstorms that stranded millions of people at Chinese New Year, and now this devastating earthquake. And of course there has long been a connection in people's minds about natural disasters foreshadowing upheaval in government.

Are people concerned about the safety of the Olympic structures?

There was initially some concern about the Olympic structures, namely the Bird's Nest, but that seems to have passed.

What is the biggest risk or worry for the Summer Games?

I think the biggest immediate risk is how China will handle foreign protesters. Will they be arrested, dragged away, and treated poorly, or will China allow these people to voice their views? Will local officials detain and harass foreign reporters? Will the reporting on China in the Western media fuel more frustration among ordinary Chinese citizens? The day-to-day interaction between these representatives of a different ideology—advocates of better human rights protection, employees of the free Western press—and the officials in the Chinese government will be important and telling.

Are journalists able to report freely?

Journalists are reporting with impressive amounts of freedom, though there are clearly areas that are still off limits. I know of one case where police blocked foreign reporters' access to Beichuan, one of the hardest hit areas, and another case where a photographer was harassed by local government officials. But, in general, the government seems entirely focused on the search-and-rescue effort and is much more transparent about releasing figures on the number of dead and injured.

Do the Chinese people welcome foreign influence, for example NGOs or corporations, in the context of the Olympics?

Certainly right now the focus is on nursing the wounds left by the earthquake in Sichuan. As we approach the Olympics, I'm sure there will be a growing sense of pride in being Chinese. Criticizing China for its human rights record, its policy toward Tibet, or its labor abuses would strike the wrong note with ordinary Chinese right now. And even in the coming weeks and months, as the 24-hour coverage of the earthquake gives way to stories of the recovery and other issues, I think this will continue to be true. Any messages that foreign companies or NGOs want to convey must resonate with ordinary Chinese to gain traction in the domestic media.


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