Transparency must not be a post-quake victim

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 June, 2008, 12:00am

A month to the day after the Sichuan earthquake, survivors are finally living without the fear of another terrible disaster - the Tangjiashan 'quake lake' suddenly bursting its banks. The controlled release of a huge mass of water without loss of life ends the race to save lives and prevent more damage. But it also marks the start of a chapter that poses new challenges for the country's leaders.

Natural disasters that change the face of the Earth can also reshape society. The Asian tsunami that devastated the Indonesian province of Aceh, for example, helped bring about a peace agreement which ended many years of conflict. Such developments do not lessen the tragedy and suffering caused by a disaster, but they show that adversity can lead to positive changes.

The mainland's openness about the disaster and the search, rescue and relief work is a case in point. Time has dimmed the contrast with the secrecy surrounding the Tangshan earthquake of 1976, in which many more died. There are more recent examples of attempted cover-ups, however, such as those relating to some mine disasters. Often the culprits have been local officials protecting their own interests. The habit of suppressing and managing bad news is not an easy one for officials to break.

In Sichuan, the media defied orders not to enter the disaster region and were eventually given unprecedented access to report and comment on the death and destruction, the search for survivors and the ordeal of the living, including millions of homeless. As a result, the lessons to be learned from such disasters are clear. Officials are seen to be accountable for the way in which they respond to them as well as for any mistakes or malpractice.

There should be no turning back. China is embarking on a post-quake reconstruction project of national importance. The access given to the media has, through coverage of the massive rescue operation, swift humanitarian response and profoundly moving three-minute period of silence, presented the country in a positive light. But it has also exposed problems which must be tackled in the rebuilding phase. They include claims that official corruption was responsible for shoddily built schools that collapsed on their students, while other buildings nearby remained standing; and well-founded fears that reconstruction funds will be siphoned off. Media revelations of post-quake corruption have already aroused a wave of public revulsion.

Millions are living in emergency prefabricated accommodation or tents, without schools and hospitals. Reconstruction, resettlement and rehabilitation will take years. Beijing has earmarked an initial US$10 billion for reconstruction this year. The normal rules of accountability can be easily overlooked in emergency relief and reconstruction work. That must not happen with Sichuan.

Beijing can be expected to weigh greater media freedom against a perceived risk to social stability. But media freedom remains critical to the transparency and accountability needed to ensure that reconstruction funds go where intended and are spent wisely.

The Sichuan disaster has united the Chinese people in a spontaneous demonstration of national cohesion and shared social responsibility, expressed in donations and support for rescue efforts. This is healthy for the development of civil society. The central government, therefore, bears a heavy responsibility to the people for ensuring a transparent reconstruction operation that does justice to the national response to the disaster.