Sichuan victims still deserve an inquiry

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 May, 2009, 12:00am

The cataclysm that shook China a year ago this afternoon united the nation in grief and compassion. The mass death, suffering and devastation of the Sichuan earthquake also moved the world. Thanks to unusual government openness and unrestricted media access, news and images of the disaster and rescue efforts sparked international aid and sympathy.

The way the national leadership handled the worst natural disaster since China's opening up contrasted with the Tangshan earthquake in 1976. Then, leaders suppressed bad news. It was a long time before the full extent of a catastrophe that killed about 250,000 people emerged. Transparency is not only healthy in itself, but recognition of their suffering would help millions of homeless survivors reach closure and move on to rebuild their lives.

Regrettably, it did not last long. In a politically sensitive year in China, the authorities are again clamping down on information and reporting about the earthquake. Our series to mark the anniversary, which continues today, has told how they have reimposed restrictions on the media. This only underlines the government's failure to hold a thorough investigation into every aspect of the disaster, to reveal the truth and ensure that lessons learned can be applied in the future.

The least to be expected of any government is that it publish how many were killed and their names, even if accurate numbers are not available. Until last week, however, the authorities had resisted pressure to release the number of children killed or missing after schools collapsed. They finally did so, but only because a volunteer group had compiled the information.

With a natural disaster, there is no shame attached to efforts to publicly determine how many died and how, and contributing factors such as any shortcomings in construction, rescue operations and warnings. After all, it would be consistent with the government's stated objective of putting people first. A proper investigation would consider whether any official should be held responsible and, if so, refer their case to legal authorities for determination according to the rule of law. Such accountability is a principle of sound government, not a populist witch-hunt in the wake of a tragedy. Regrettably, the government seems intent on letting bygones be bygones.

In an obvious attempt to show that it is taking natural disasters seriously, the central government yesterday unveiled a white paper on natural disasters. It says China faces greater risks of natural disasters and makes a case for strengthening capabilities of dealing with them at all levels. That is all very well. But it does not obviate the need to conduct a full inquiry of last year's tremor.

That said, the Sichuan earthquake galvanised Chinese people's sense of nationhood and strengthened their common bond. The experience has led to improvements in preparedness, such as enhanced awareness of the importance of having adequate rescue manpower and equipment. But, a year later, there remain many unanswered questions and a smouldering sense of injustice, especially among bereaved parents who still want to know why so many schools collapsed amid buildings that remained standing. This should not be allowed to continue. It is not too late for the government to hold an official inquiry. Contrary to officials' excuse for blocking media inquiries - maintaining social stability and harmony - an inquiry would not only help people reach closure, but would help promote social harmony.