Wen Jiabao

Lesson in civility

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 March, 2011, 12:00am

Japan has been subjected to a horrifying ordeal since it was struck by a massive magnitude-9 earthquake, followed by a gigantic tsunami that knocked out the Fukushima nuclear power plant, precipitating a nuclear crisis. But the calamity also showcased the resilience of Japanese society and the strength of its people. As the Asahi newspaper said in an editorial: 'Our patience, resilience and ability to solve problems are being tested. The world is watching us.' And so it is. One foreigner living in Tokyo wrote admiringly that, for most of his Japanese colleagues, 'there is a calm, good humour'.

Chinese media, too, devoted much space to covering the disaster. China Daily remarked that people reacted calmly and 'there was little panic or hysteria'. Despite a few anti-Japanese epithets online, many ordinary Chinese expressed sympathy for Japan and admiration for the way its people had behaved under stress. Some contrasted the calm in Japan with the panic buying of salt in China by those who erroneously believed that it would provide protection against radiation. One newspaper praised the Japanese for their civilised behaviour, noting the orderliness with which classrooms were evacuated, with the teachers ensuring children were safe before leaving themselves.

The article did not mention it, but there was a well-known incident in 1994 when Chinese students were told to remain in their seats after a fire broke out in a theatre in Karamay, in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. There, Communist Party officials left first. More than 300 people died in the fire, including 288 children.

Comments about the Japanese disaster show that many in China feel that, though their country has now overtaken Japan as the world's second-largest economy, Japan is still way ahead of China in the quality of its people and their values.

While China has been trying to enhance its soft power by propagating the teachings of Confucius, the Japanese tsunami shows just how far behind China is in terms of real soft power.

However, the catastrophe has also presented an opportunity for repairing Sino-Japanese relations, which have been going through a bad patch for the past six months, ever since a Chinese fishing trawler collided with Japanese coast guard vessels in the vicinity of the disputed islands which are known as the Senkakus to Japan and the Diaoyus to China. The area, like much of the East China Sea, is believed to be rich in oil and natural gas and, while the two countries have agreed in principle to joint development, nothing much has happened yet.

In fact, Japan was angered recently when a Chinese oil company said that China was already extracting oil from the Chunxiao oil and gas field located in the disputed area.

But Chinese leaders were quick to respond as soon as news of the Japanese disaster reached Beijing. President Hu Jintao and other senior officials sent messages of condolence to their counterparts in Tokyo. Premier Wen Jiabao, at a press conference, asked if there were Japanese correspondents present and voiced his sympathy. This recalls what happened in 2008, when Sichuan province was struck by a devastating quake. Japan sent relief aid and a search and rescue team to China, which enhanced Japan's image in the country.

Similarly, this time around, China has been quick to offer assistance. A 15-member rescue team arrived in Japan two days after the quake struck. Even the official Xinhua news agency said, somewhat uncharacteristically: 'At critical moments such as this, when natural catastrophes may tip the delicate balance between life and death, as forces mostly beyond our control, we all -regardless of our nation or race- are suddenly strangers no more. It is then that we realise we are sitting in the same boat, and that everyone's effort is needed to keep the boat moving forward.'

Hopefully, such sentiments will remain when the tragedy itself is but a dim memory.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1