Rescue effort shows power of civil society

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 May, 2008, 12:00am

It is now more than three weeks since the Sichuan earthquake, and we are gradually coming to terms with the magnitude of this calamity. Scores of villages within 200km of the epicentre - an area of about 100,000 sq km - have been devastated; more than 88,000 people are dead or missing, 364,000 injured and 5 million displaced. The neighbouring provinces of Gansu and Shaanxi were also seriously affected. Economic losses could reach 1 trillion yuan (HK$1.12 trillion).

The last person found alive had miraculously survived under the rubble for 216 hours. Since then, the search and rescue operation has gradually given way to damage control and rehabilitation. Soldiers and earth-moving equipment have been quietly replaced by medical teams and social workers, along with food and other supplies.

Yet the operation remains massive. With 5 million homeless, the 260,000 tents in stock were quickly exhausted; only 30,000 a day can be added. Many of the injured were transferred to hospitals in nearby cities, then to other institutions throughout the country. The logistics are mind-boggling. The air is now pungent with the smell of death, and water is contaminated and undrinkable. Disinfection and prevention of epidemics have become the new priorities.

The water in the 'quake lake' at Tangjiashan has kept rising, by about 2 metres a day for two weeks, even without heavy rainfall upstream. This highly unstable lake, formed when landslides caused by the quake blocked the Jian River, holds some 100 million cubic metres of water, threatening cities well downstream, including the province capital, Chengdu , with its population of 11 million.

The military has been monitoring the conditions of the lake while quickly erecting 20,000 square metres of metal-wire fencing to prevent landslides, and digging away 75,000 cubic metres of debris to create a channel for water to escape safely. With no road access, more than 130 earth-moving vehicles had to be airlifted to the site by huge helicopters flying through thick cloud. This is the biggest of 34 'quake lakes' that were created when hillsides collapsed. Each must be dealt with before they become too dangerous.

The performance of the whole country so far has been exemplary. Many outside observers note, with mixed feelings, the rise of patriotism, especially among young people. A secondary school at the epicentre resumed its lessons with the national anthem. When the national flag in Tiananmen Square was lowered on the evening of May 19, marking the end of the three-day mourning period, tens of thousands of people gathered in squares in major cities, shouting: 'Long live China!' This sentiment has spread to Hong Kong, as indicated by recent polls, and the record amount of donations.

Even more important, but little noted, is the rise of civil society. As soon as the news of the earthquake broke, people from all walks of life jumped into action in the battle against time. A construction company rushed equipment to the affected area, arriving at the same time as the soldiers. Food and supplies from donors in every province have poured in to the region, to supplement donations from the government and abroad.

Volunteers from across the country stopped what they were doing and headed for the disaster zone, most wearing T-shirts emblazoned with 'I Love China'. They did whatever they could to help. Many worked day and night to restore communications, power and water supplies. Non-governmental organisations were also active. And citizens have begun to monitor the performance of officials and have reported cases of possible negligence and embezzlement.

Civil society in China is clearly maturing and showing its prowess. Rights come with commitment. This is a new development with far-reaching implications in China.

Lau Nai-keung is a member of the Basic Law Committee of the NPCSC and a member of the Commission on Strategic Development