Tectonic shift

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 May, 2008, 12:00am

What will be the lasting legacy of the Sichuan quake? Although attention is now focused on the recovery effort, which carries a degree of predictability, the longer-term impact is less certain. But, it is clear that a cataclysmic event of this kind rarely passes without leaving lasting consequences.

Anyone doubting this assertion might care to think about the aftermath of the even worse 1976 Tangshan earthquake, when 240,000 people perished despite early government denials of the extent of the tragedy. The rescue and recovery was slow, China firmly closed its doors to assistance from the outside world, and there was no sign of national leaders rushing to the area to take command of the emergency effort.

Yet, somehow, Chinese people got to know what had happened and their anger and revulsion played a role in the downfall of the dreaded 'Gang of Four' who led the Cultural Revolution. Indeed, 1976 was the first year to see stirrings of public protests against the madness of this so-called revolution as citizens poured into Tiananmen Square in early April to commemorate the death of Zhou Enlai in January that year but quickly turned their anger on the Gang of Four. By September, Mao Zedong had also died and the gang members were arrested.

What is remarkable in the three decades that have passed since these traumatic events is that, while Premier Wen Jiabao was quick to fly out to the disaster zone, the fossils who still command the Communist Party's propaganda affairs were equally quick to issue a banning order preventing the media from covering the earthquake. But this is 2008 and many brave Chinese journalists and their newspapers simply ignored the order and went ahead to find out what had happened. The ban on reporting did not need to be lifted; it simply collapsed.

Now China is being praised for its openness in allowing the world to see what's happening in Sichuan. The infamous 'great firewall' that surrounds the internet has been severely breached as netizens lavish praise on the rescue effort but are also unsparing in their criticism of officials who supervised the construction of shoddy schools that crumbled as the tremors hit and, perhaps unfairly, they have given geologists a hard time for failing to forecast the quake. But there is more, because we have seen numerous examples of citizens taking the initiative to travel to the disaster area to offer help, and a host of 'unofficial' activities have emerged. This is hardly typical of what happens in an authoritarian state like China where the very word 'unofficial' makes officials reach for the panic button.

On Monday, for the first time in the history of the People's Republic, there was a national cessation of all activity to pay respect to ordinary citizens who died in the quake. It is impossible to imagine some of Mr Wen's predecessors, notably the much-hated premier Li Peng , dropping everything to take command of a relief effort. Having done it once, in a blaze of publicity, it will be hard for Chinese leaders to lurk in the background should there be another tragedy and, indeed, if things go wrong, the usual habit of purging a few bureaucrats will fall short of newly minted expectations for leaders to be on the front line when responsibility is meted out.

There has been a surge of patriotic fervour and national unity in response to both the earthquake and the troubles China has been having parading the Olympic torch around the world. Whereas China's Olympic triumphalism was clearly planned for political ends, the humanitarian response to this natural disaster had no element of planning but hopefully demonstrated to the party that the people of China are quite capable of displaying extraordinary national solidarity without orchestration.

What we are witnessing is the rapid emergence of a form of civil society that is rarely seen in authoritarian states. The key to a flourishing civil society is individual and group initiative which does not require a state command structure to make things happen. And it is the flaw of authoritarian states to be terrified of initiatives that they do not take themselves and to be intensely distrustful of their own citizens.

Once this fear is broken down, as it may have been in wake of the earthquake, and once citizens more fully appreciate that the state is far less omnipotent than it has been, much flows from these realisations. It is too early to be optimistic about the lasting legacy of the quake. But, if nothing else, it presents China with unprecedented opportunities to explore new ways of doing things. The enormous and painful cost of the quake is there for all to see but it will be unforgivably squandered if the central government thinks that resuming business as usual should be the order of the day.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur