NPR logo Earthquake Reaction Raises Questions

Anthony Kuhn

Earthquake Reaction Raises Questions

Refugees, soldiers and rescue workers carry survivors out of the county town of Beichuan. The landslide that buried much of the town is visible in the background. Photo by Anthony Kuhn, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Photo by Anthony Kuhn, NPR

Though not at the epicenter of the quake, the city of Mianyang has actually suffered the most casualties from the May 12th earthquake. One look at the area's mountainous terrain makes it clear why Chairman Mao chose Mianyang as the linchpin of his "Third Line" strategy to relocate defense-related industries and research facilities there during the 1960s to make them less vulnerable to attack. (How vulnerable they are to earthquakes is of course is another matter.)

All along the road to Beichuan county, I saw homeless earthquake victims, many of whom had walked three days or more to come down from the mountains. Many limped along in simple canvas shoes, carrying bags and blankets. I saw many of them arrive at the Jiuzhou stadium in Mianyang, volunteers gave them tents, food and clothing.

These sights offered food for thought.

DECISION-MAKING MYSTERY

For example, I bumped into plenty of my colleagues in Beichuan. Security forces were clearly on orders to let foreign journalists into Beichuan. At what level was this decision made, and why? Why were foreign journalists being kicked out of less dangerous and remote areas? It certainly can't have hurt that there were quite a few foreign volunteers working hard to save victims in Beichuan, and Chinese and foreigners alike were clearly united in their urgent common mission.

Rubble and damaged houses in Bei Chuan County. Photo by Anthony Kuhn, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Photo by Anthony Kuhn, NPR

And even if there is no sign of major liberalization of rules governing the domestic press, the government appears to be giving it much freer reign on this particular story. If the effort is successful in increasing social stability and boosting the government's credibility, it could serve as a helpful precedent for future reforms and win Chinese journalists extra room to practice their craft.

WATERSHED DEVELOPMENT?

Also, the flood of volunteer workers and donors ferrying food and supplies to stricken areas has become so great that the government today had to impose traffic controls in some areas to ensure that vital supplies could get through. The outpouring of charity and volunteerism appears to be unprecedented in China. It's the opposite of the crass materialism at which social critics often rail. Is this a one-off phenomenon, or will this prove to be a watershed in the development of Chinese civil society?

Militia, medics and volunteers clamber over the remains of a street in Bei Chuan County, one of the areas of Sichuan province hardest hit by the earthquake. Photo by Anthony Kuhn, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Photo by Anthony Kuhn, NPR

CARRYING THE TORCH

Beyond this, how will this event affect Chinese people's priorities and values? Consider this: The Olympic Torch relay is due to pass through Mianyang in mid-June. The government has said the show will go on, but there's already a debate in progress. Several noted Chinese scholars have suggested that the relay should be canceled. In the face of such a far-reaching disaster, they argue, this is no time for a lavish celebration. In any event, the earthquake clearly offers an important window on the country at a crucial time, and a wealth of lessons for all to learn.

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