The price of stability

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 May, 2009, 12:00am

Twenty years ago, the military crackdown in Tiananmen Square was ordered by Deng Xiaoping and other party elders. They feared that the peaceful protests mounted by hundreds of thousands of students, and supported by up to 1 million Beijing residents, would degenerate into chaos and endanger the country's social and political stability. In their minds, hundreds - even thousands - of lives was a price worth paying for stability and prosperity. And it has been repeatedly pointed out that, in the years since then, the country has made steady and rapid economic progress.

So this is the formula that the country has been following: stability is more important than anything else and any factors that lend themselves to instability must be removed at all costs.

With this in mind, one can understand what is happening in Sichuan, which is marking the first anniversary of the devastating earthquake. There, parents who suffered the loss of their only child as flimsy schoolhouses collapsed are not allowed to stage protests, take legal action, or speak to foreign reporters, because these things may undermine social stability.

So, after having been victimised by the forces of nature, they are now being victimised by agents of the state who monitor their every word and pressure them to accept their loss stoically; to put their faith in the Communist Party and the government. The last thing these parents must do is call for investigations into whether there was official corruption or malfeasance involved in the construction of schoolhouses that collapsed on children like houses of cards, often while other buildings nearby survived intact.

In the minds of the party and the government, these grieving parents are now potential factors for instability. And so the state will do whatever is necessary to make sure they do not rock the boat. Some parents have attempted to lodge legal cases, claiming that flimsy construction was responsible for their children's deaths. But the courts, under party control, have not accepted a single case.

Last year, immediately after the earthquake, the government was praised for allowing - or, at least, not stopping - the foreign press reporting freely on the tragedy, and promising an investigation into the large number of schools that collapsed, leading to the deaths of thousands of children. At the time, Premier Wen Jiabao touched the hearts of his countrymen as he ventured into the quake area, tears streaming down his face, calling himself 'Grandpa Wen' and assuring trapped children that they would be rescued.

A year later, how things have changed. Foreign correspondents are prevented from doing their jobs. Some have been detained while others have been physically attacked by officials while trying to interview parents whose children have died. Parents, meanwhile, are warned not to talk to foreigners.

The Foreign Correspondents Club of China reported that on one day - May 6 - it received 'three separate, confirmed reports of journalists being physically attacked in Sichuan', with equipment being broken. In one incident, a Financial Times journalist and his crew were surrounded by 10 to 12 men, one of whom tried to grab the video camera and punched him in the arm. When the news team tried to film an interview with a petitioner, a man ripped the video camera from its tripod. In fact, the government has even accused some foreign journalists of attempting to incite insurrection. One official, Hou Xiongfei , vice-head of the Sichuan party committee's propaganda department, said some foreign journalists do not go 'to the earthquake zone to conduct interviews, but to incite trouble'.

The Sichuan government last week issued a figure for the number of children killed in the quake, putting it at 5,335. However, no names were provided. It said schoolhouse collapses were due only to the quake and not to shoddy construction.

Now, the government wants people to be forward-looking. But what can parents who have lost their children possibly see in their future? And is stability really being strengthened when the government refuses to accept their petitions and lawsuits?

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator