Questions You Won't Hear on China's State TV: Did Shoddy Construction Worsen Disaster's Impact?

By Wieland Wagner in Shanghai

Schools collapsed like houses of cards, apartment blocks were reduced to dust. The horrendous earthquake in China's Suchuan province underscores problems with shoddy construction in the country. State television may be full of images of people in mourning, but any questions of responsibility are taboo.

A collapsed building in Sichuan province: pitiful piles of rubble
AFP

A collapsed building in Sichuan province: pitiful piles of rubble

"Some people will get rich first. Others will get rich later." It was a slogan beloved of Deng Xiaoping, the legendary reformer who opened up communist China three decades ago and pushed through market reforms that freed some 300 million of his country's people from deep poverty.

These days, the world is getting a glimpse of the other China, the giant country's underdeveloped west, which is still waiting for its prosperity. And it is no coincidence that it is the poorest of China's billion people who are currently being dramatically pulled in the tens of thousands from the dusty and stinking rubble of schools and houses, some fortunately still alive, but most as corpses.

We are talking here mainly about those Chinese who have benefited least from the economic miracle that foreign visitors to the gleaming metropolises such as Beijing or Shanghai admire. Ironically, China's ascent to the world's economic powerhouse would hardly have been possible without people like those in backward Sichuan.

Admittedly, the province itself, with its often impoverished mountain villages, accounts for only 4 percent of China's gross domestic product. But it is precisely this region, which the earthquake has now so devastated, which supplies many of the -- often young -- migrant workers who travel to the prosperous east of the country. There, they work as low-wage slaves on construction sites or in factories producing goods for export.

The Other China

Suddenly the horrific images from the quake region remind us that there is another People's Republic, where there is poverty in the shadow of the steel and glass palaces that Western star architects plan for the glory of the communist rulers. The images also remind us that China is a developing country in which progress-obsessed and often corrupt party functionaries exploit people as a cheap raw material for the country's industrial revolution.

The earthquake has made these contrasts blatantly clear. The example of the crisis region in Sichuan lets outside observers see just how hastily and sloppily buildings are being constructed everywhere in China. Schools in particular -- which should actually be some of the safest buildings -- have collapsed into pitiful piles of rubble. Around 500 dams in the region have such alarming cracks in them that experts are warning of disastrous flooding.

In some of the devastated cities and villages, in front of destroyed schools and overcrowded mortuaries, stunned relatives of victims are already accusing the authorities of corruption. In order to save money, they complain, local officials built schools that were not safe enough -- and that in a region that was hit by a major quake only 75 years ago that claimed thousands of victims. But when it came to party and government buildings, so the distraught relatives claim, the officials made sure that building codes were met.

In a democratic country the media would now -- four days after the earthquake -- be starting to ask critical questions of the government. Naturally it could not have done anything to prevent the natural disaster itself. But the fundamental question of why the quake caused this level of destruction should be permitted. That, however, is not possible in China.

State television is indeed covering the disaster with unusual intensity on a daily basis. The flood of images is without precedent, but they have also been carefully selected by the omnipresent censors. The reporters have been given strict instructions to highlight the military's heroic mission.

Heavily equipped rescuers in green uniforms are seen tirelessly marching across the screen, often on a time loop, accompanied by mournful music. And the fact that Prime Minister Wen Jiabao allowed injured victims of the quake to be transported in his helicopter is repeatedly emphasized.

Uncritical Coverage for a 'Harmonious Society'

The reporting on the state channel CCTV is accompanied by the rallying cry of "our united will is stronger than a fortress." The TV presenters praise the victims in the disaster region for their "stable frame of mind."

Mourning and despair can be beamed into people's living rooms -- but not the complaints and anger. This doesn't quite gel with the idea of China's "harmonious society," which is being attested to everywhere. Images that might require explanations are being suppressed, such as furious parents who blame the state for their buried children or hungry farmers who are sifting through the ruins of their homes to find the last grains of rice because they still haven't received any aid.

Chinese Internet users are tentatively starting to voice doubts about the official explanations for the devastating scale of the destruction. "Some of them are saying the classrooms collapsed so easily because they are so big," one blogger on the Web portal Tianya complains, "but these people are thinking with their asses."

No one can honestly hope that Beijing will permit the necessary public debate about the quake and its consequences. "Please leave my posting up a little while longer before it is harmonized," one blogger deliberately pleads with the censors. However this request, with its cheeky sideswipe about the government's harmony rhetoric, fell on deaf ears. Half an hour later, the critical comments had been deleted along with other postings.

In that regard, the Communist leadership has a raft of questions to answer that Chinese people across the country are already posing in private. Why, for example, did it take the People's Army 30 hours to finally arrive at the worst-hit villages? And why is it that an army that is capable of shooting down satellites in space from the ground is not able to fly rescue helicopters at night or in the rain?

And why did Beijing initially turn down an offer from neighboring Japan -- a country with considerable experience dealing with earthquakes -- to send in experienced earthquake disaster relief specialists? In the end, China asked the Japanese to come, but only on the third day after the temblor.

Another odd aspect of the official crisis management in the People's Republic is the fact that Hu Jintao, the head of state and Communist Party leader, didn't personally visit the victims of the earthquake, leaving the task to his prime minister instead. Hu couldn't even spare a few sympathetic words for the victims of the disaster. Instead, the TV news has broadcast his written appeals to people to persevere through the crisis. Hu is making his first trip to the region on Friday.

This isn't the first massive disaster Hu has had to deal with in recent months. One year ago, the fragile Tuojiang Bridge, under construction in the Hunan Province at the time, collapsed, killing 64 people and injuring 22. Hu quickly and decisively ordered the arrest of officials there whom he held accountable for the shoddy construction. He was able to deal with the issue swiftly -- at least for a time.

But it won't be as easy for Beijing to put the earthquake in Sichuan quickly behind it. Because the other China -- the very one that, according to the will of the Communist Party, will first grow rich at a later date -- doesn't just want condolences. It also has the right to convincing answers.

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