Wen Jiabao

Silent expression of a nation's grief

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 May, 2008, 12:00am


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Shared grief draws a family together like no other emotion. The same can be true of nations. A loss can be so profound it leaves no one untouched. So it is for China and Chinese people with the official mourning for the victims of the Sichuan earthquake.

The three days of national mourning may be unprecedented. But yesterday's three minutes of silence is what will endure in our memory. Observed at 2.28pm, precisely one week after the quake that cost tens of thousands their lives, it was a tribute of respect for the victims and compassion for the survivors. The participation of Hong Kong people in the event was moving. Not long ago, the arrival of the Beijing Olympic torch relay in the city sparked an outpouring of patriotic pride in the nation's modern achievements. Yesterday's solemn silence evoked an even more palpable sense of Chineseness among the populace. It has drawn us that much closer to compatriots across the border. It is a reminder that there is a bond between Chinese people, in good times and bad, that extends beyond boundaries, politics and different ways of life.

Healthy transparency

The nation's vast, heavily populated landscape is no stranger to natural disasters. What sets the latest earthquake apart is that it is the most severe since China's opening up. Many more people died in the Tangshan earthquake of 1976. But China was still closed to the outside world and leaders at the time suppressed bad news. It was a long time before the full extent of the disaster emerged.

Transparency is not only healthy in itself, but it helps survivors and those left behind reach closure before moving on, as they must. Without grieving it can be hard to achieve. In this case, the tragedy touched hearts across the nation. The very public mourning, though unprecedented in the country, is therefore nothing to be self-conscious about.

The blanket national coverage of the ongoing military and civilian emergency response has almost numbed the senses to the depths of tragedy and suffering. But a week after the quake was the proper time to mourn. The massive rescue operation had to take priority. The mourning, however, was not just to pay respect to those whose lives were cut short. The survivors need to be reassured that they are not forgotten in the pain and suffering, including the loss of loved ones, that will remain with them for years to come.

Rehabilitation a priority

We cannot give up hope for more miracles. We can only pray that if there are any more survivors still in the rubble, that the rescuers will save them. But the focus now must shift to the immediate future of the region and its people.

The first priority must be the rehabilitation of the survivors. The authorities must allocate adequate resources for follow-up medical treatment and trauma counselling. People without any apparent injury have still lost everything they had, and in many cases some or all of their families.

Reconstruction of homes, businesses and public buildings calls for open honesty about shortcomings of the past and careful thought about the way forward. Where once there were independent communities with their own infrastructure there is now devastation. Many schools collapsed on their students, who accounted for a disproportionate number of the dead.

In Sichuan, a relatively poor region, about 3.5 million homes were destroyed. Many buildings and homes may have been put up on the cheap. The earthquake's destructive power has been revised upwards to the awesome force of 8, from 7.8, on the Richter scale. That has never happened before in living memory. But Sichuan remains geologically prone to earthquakes. Neglect of building standards is a recipe for disaster.

Lessons to be learned from rescue

There are lessons to be learned, too, from the rescue operation, even though it was unprecedented in its speed and scope. Nothing could have prepared the first wave of rescuers for what lay ahead. Blocked roads, severed communications and bad weather did not make their task any easier. But the mobilisation of more manpower from the general community, many more helicopters to ferry emergency supplies and more salvaging equipment would have helped.

Given that Premier Wen Jiabao was quick to show leadership on the rescue scene, followed by President Hu Jintao , it seems reasonable to hope that rescue, rehabilitation and reconstruction issues will get continuing top-level attention.

The resumption of the Olympic torch relay after the mourning period will be a poignant reminder that life must go on. But it faces a subdued reception while the rescue operation continues. What better way to uphold its patriotic symbolism than to dedicate it to the memory of the victims? Perhaps it could now make its way to Beijing from the earthquake zone, or the runners could carry or wear a symbol of respect.

Yesterday's moving tribute leaves no doubt such gestures would be well received. Just as a photograph is worth a thousand words, silence can be eloquent when words cannot be found to express people's grief about a human catastrophe.