Helping to repair Sichuan, and our image

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 July, 2008, 12:00am

The Hong Kong media mainly focused on two stories during the recent legislators' visit to earthquake-damaged areas in Sichuan . One story was the pro-democracy members of the group, some of whom were making their first allowed visits to the interior of the mainland since 1989. The other was the money that Hong Kong would contribute to reconstruction.

For we Legislative Council members, the main stories were the heartbreaking devastation, the surprising amount of rebuilding that has already been done - and the huge job that lies ahead. We visited the town of Yingxiu, where up to 70 per cent of the buildings had been levelled. The rest will be pulled down. The survivors have been evacuated, so the place is deserted.

It looks shocking on television, but the impact when you see it first hand is impossible to describe - a community of thousands of people completely wiped away. There are many others like it. All around, the whole landscape of mountains and forests has been devastated. It must have been a beautiful place once, but giant landslides have swept away large areas of greenery.

The good news is that a surprising amount of restoration has been done in the nine weeks since the earthquake. The road to Yingxiu has been repaired, and thousands of soldiers are everywhere, clearing debris and setting up temporary housing for the survivors. The mobilisation and co-ordination are extremely impressive.

Nonetheless, the bad news is that about 10 million people have lost their homes. Most have also lost loved ones, and have been further traumatised by countless aftershocks. The survivors are staying in prefabricated huts, and one family we visited had even gone back to rescue their refrigerator and dining table. It will be a huge, long task to get all these people into real homes where they can live decently again.

Wealthier mainland cities and provinces have been ordered to divert 1 per cent of last year's public revenue to specific parts of the devastated region. For example, Guangdong will look after Wenchuan , the epicentre of the quake. Municipal departments have their own part to play. Shanghai police, for example, are funding new facilities for their counterparts in a Sichuan city.

It is essential for Hong Kong to help and, hopefully, Legco will approve HK$2 billion today as the first phase for a reconstruction fund. This does not mean that we should neglect the plight of local people who are being hit hard by inflation. As well as our government funding for Sichuan, the private sector is willing to contribute resources, and our non-governmental organisations and professionals are eager to get involved. We are the richest city in China, and if we work together we can play our part in Sichuan while looking after our own poor.

Obviously, we have every right to expect our money to be used openly and well. We are not alone in worrying about this: reports say that authorities on the mainland are sending 10,000 auditors to Sichuan to monitor funds and supplies. But we must accept that Hong Kong agencies or officials cannot just go in there, pick a place that needs help and personally run everything.

That is not how it works - not in China or anywhere in the world. Our NGOs must work in Sichuan (as elsewhere) with local authorities and be guided by central government priorities. If, for example, we are paying for the building of some new schools somewhere, we can expect to specify the standards of work. But the project management and procedures will be local, and different in style from Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has a bit of an image problem. Some mainland people see us as arrogant, rich and often asking for favours. It might not be fair, but that is how some see us. With millions homeless, it is essential that we prove ourselves to be generous, helpful and sympathetic.

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council and a legislator representing the insurance functional constituency



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