Quake rattles foundations of authority

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

Spontaneous volunteering and loosened media reins could test the leadership

China's millennium-old philosophy of yin and yang says that for every advantage there is a disadvantage, for every good an evil, and so on.

For all the horrific loss the magnitude-8 earthquake brought on May 12, analysts say that in the aftermath they have seen remarkable social progress on the mainland in terms of the public's sense of social responsibility and their aspirations to participate in public affairs and improve governance.

With the decade-old free-market reforms existing alongside authoritarian rule, people have become more and more indifferent to public affairs and politics. But immediately after the earthquake, people from all walks of life across the nation acted spontaneously to offer help, donations and support to the rescue efforts.

Analysts said the outpouring of public support and donations had revealed not just the people's compassion but, more importantly, their sense of responsibility.

'Many Chinese opened their hearts and their purses to contribute to the relief effort, giving hope that a civil society may some day emerge in the People's Republic,' June Teufel Dreyer, a China expert at the University of Miami, said.

Jia Xijin , deputy director of the Institute of Non-Governmental Organisations at Tsinghua University's School of Public Policy and Administration, agreed.

'The milestone development is that the earthquake relief effort has awakened somewhat people's sense of political participation and social responsibility,' Professor Jia said.

While millions donated to the Red Cross and other big official charities, many have also organised their own charity collections, driven convoys of deliveries to remote towns and offered help at tent camps for quake victims.

These actions exhibit a striking turn in an authoritarian country where charities are strictly controlled.

Keeping this rise of patriotic fervour and public participation in check could test Communist Party leaders, who distrust any spontaneous social gatherings, even those that support the leadership.

Professor Jia said the public concern fostered by the quake may also amplify public scrutiny of reconstruction efforts and the resettlement of quake refugees. 'The public has already shown its awareness of post-quake corruption exposed by an emboldened domestic media,' she said.

She said four important indicators were pointing in that direction: transparency, media independence, rule of law and the development of a civil society.

Despite the government's usually tight control on media coverage of bad news, the propaganda tsars have apparently tolerated a more defiant media this time as the quake has led to unprecedented media competition for coverage. State television, for example, has been broadcasting quake reports continuously for almost the whole month since.

The government also has granted unprecedented access to the foreign media and assisted foreign journalists. This compares with three months ago when authorities banned foreign reporters from going to Tibetan-populated areas to cover anti-government riots.

In something of a milestone, the earthquake also prompted the first live news conference by top military brass, organised by the State Council.

Xiong Wenzhao , a professor with the Law Institute of the Central University for Nationalities, said it had been the Sars outbreak that made the authorities aware of the importance of protecting the public's right to know, and the dangers and risks of a possible government cover-up.

Professor Jia said the earthquake had provided a chance to establish a system that would encourage the press to report more openly.

But Professor Dreyer said the press was not completely free, citing some reports of censorship. 'How these cases are handled will be a test of how much, if at all, the rule of law was advanced by this tragedy.'

Chinese leaders have long boasted of having a knack for turning crisis into opportunity, and the earthquake has been no different.

Since May 12, top leaders, including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao , have inspected the areas several times and appeared where rescue efforts were intensive and their leadership was sought.

Professor Dreyer said the response to the earthquake showed an improvement in governance and contrasted with how the government of neighbouring Myanmar handled its relief operation to Cyclone Nargis.

'This esprit de corps and sense of responsibility arising from the earthquake rescue-relief operations will have a far-reaching impact on China's development,' Professor Dreyer said.

Professor Jia said the earthquake was an unprecedented opportunity for the development of mainland NGOs which, despite the government's suspicions, are a pillar of a civilised society. Since the quake, hundreds of NGOs and tens of thousands of volunteers have flocked in to help.

'The earthquake offers an opportunity for growth and a test ground for the Chinese government's attitude towards NGOs,' Professor Jia said.

She said that a strong and persistent consciousness of citizenship and people's desire to participate in public affairs and policymaking were the foundation of a civilised society, which was indispensable for the establishment of democracy.

As people worldwide have dug deep into their pockets to help survivors to the tune of more than 40 billion yuan (HK$45.1 billion), mainlanders also want monitoring to guarantee all donations reach the millions in need. Government corruption is rampant on the mainland.

Calls are now growing louder for a free press and wider participation to monitor the use of funds, and for an independent judiciary to deal with corruption affecting relief work.

Cheng Li, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in the US, said party resistance to such political reforms as a free press and political pluralism was still strong.

Analysts said that although democracy was still far away, the mainland had apparently embarked on its own version of the long road away from authoritarianism towards something more transparent.

'The earthquake has provided an opportunity to awaken the people's desire to know, to monitor and participate in the policymaking process,' Professor Jia said.

At a glance

69,146 confirmed dead

17,516 missing

374,131 injured

44.574b yuan

in donations received from home and abroad

Source: Xinhua