After catastophe, asking the right questions

A year of deadly disasters has tested the Chinese people, writes Tang Hao. From regulations on school buildings to emergency response mechanisms, there are important lessons to be learned.

The year almost seems to have been designed to test the Chinese people; 2008 has been a year of disasters. We have seen blizzards, public disorder, deadly train crashes and an earthquake. In China, there is an air of solemnity and pain. Premier Wen Jiaobao addressed an elementary school in the Sichuan quake zone and described a process of rejuvenation through disaster, which would demonstrate the determination and spirit of the Chinese people.

If the nation can reflect on the causes of catastrophe and work to resolve them, if the people can retain their reason and hope in the face of tragedy, and if society can stick to its path despite these obstacles, then disaster can present an opportunity for rebirth. The best way to remember the people who were lost is to learn from the tragedy and undertake the reforms that are needed.

The first target of reform should be China’s crisis management mechanism. Emergency response needs to become an everyday affair. Studying in the United Kingdom, I was impressed by the country’s disaster preparedness. It is actually very simple to keep people aware of potential risks. Buildings have fire safety and security information posted in prominent positions, often on a piece of paper that can be frequently updated. Fire drills are rehearsed frequently, even at 2am or 3am, with residents required to evacuate their buildings within minutes. And people take this seriously, even if it means getting out of bed and standing around in their nightclothes, in the freezing cold, waiting for the fire officers to confirm that the building is clear.

The more realistic the drills, the less damage will be done when disaster really strikes. The truth is that drills and regulations that otherwise seem useless do in fact strengthen the government’s ability to handle crisis situations, and the ability of the public to cope. Ultimately, disaster response becomes an instinct. Students do not need their teacher to tell them to leave the building as soon as possible. But in China, where there is very rarely any training or information about earthquakes, people become relaxed and forget the dangers. This is one of the reasons why so many people were lost to the recent earthquake.

It is not enough to rely on the government to manage such grave disasters; all of society must mobilise. Tens of thousands of volunteers rushed to help in the quake-hit areas of Sichuan province, including doctors, lawyers, business leaders, migrant workers, students and even earthquake victims themselves. The public response was unprecedented, with volunteers making it to even the most remote mountain areas. But at the same time, there were clear consequences of a lack of government communication with NGOs. Volunteers’ working arrangements were confused, information was often incomplete or belated, local government did not know what to do with volunteers. One local official even indicated that volunteers were no longer welcome. The government does not know how to handle its relationship with NGOs. It feels they cause more harm than good and often chases them off. This is not what should be happening. The government should consider how to strengthen training and guidance for volunteers and improve its day-to-day management mechanisms for NGOs, linking them with the government’s crisis management systems and improving the government’s own abilities at the same time.

This heart-rending disaster should be a turning-point to reform mindsets that are overly focussed on economic development. More energy should be put into changing society.

For example, seismological surveying, which has an impact on the safety of the people, has suffered from a one-sided pursuit of economic development. Just days before the earthquake, a survey station in Beijing was flattened to make way for the property developers. There is not enough scientific research being carried out. Days before the disaster, most of the information on the website for the seismological authorities in the quake zone related to travel and local politics. Not one document was relevant to predicting earthquakes. After the May 12 earthquake – as much as after the 1976 Tangshan earthquake – it is important to reform seismology, doing away with bureaucracy and rebuilding the relationship between experts, government and the public.

That the quake had such a devastating impact is related to a number of systematic failings in government oversight, education and standards for public buildings. Seven thousand school buildings collapsed. One thousand students were killed at Beichuan middle school alone. Over a dozen classes were buried at Dujiangyan’s Jiyuan middle school. Several hundred were killed in collapsed classrooms at Yangxiu elementary school in Wenchuan. This is in sharp contrast to five “Project Hope” schools nearby, which were left standing, with even the windows intact. The reason is simple: the donors who funded those schools kept a close eye on the building process, making sure no corners were cut and building standards were met. School collapses and poor building quality are old news in China. Well-built schools are a rarity, and that is the greatest tragedy. Problems occur in the building process, the supervision process and even at the design stage. Teachers did risk their own lives to save their pupils, but how many can they be expected to rescue? And should we expect teachers to sacrifice themselves to remedy the failings of the system?

The most important measure for preventing earthquake damage, therefore, is simple: construct better buildings. And if we want to have better construction, we need a comprehensive reform of the system. People say we should strengthen the standards for school buildings, but how can we achieve this unless we bolster the system that enforces those standards? We need to take this opportunity to alter the system which is only concerned with the health of the economy, rather than the environment and safety of its people.

When Phoenix TV anchor Zeng Zimo interviewed a guest who had predicted the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, she said, “If a nation can admit its weaknesses, there will be progress. If a person can admit their mistakes, there is hope.” The Kobe earthquake in Japan in 1995 also killed many people and revealed failings in disaster preparedness, leading to investigations and reform. Subsequent earthquakes in Japan have not caused the same scale of destruction.

Disasters do not lead to improvements in themselves, but they can raise awareness and encourage reform. They signal something important to the survivors and force us to ask important questions. How can we ensure our schools are well-built and punish those responsible for poor-quality buildings? How can we maintain the media’s quick and efficient reporting and protect the public’s right to know? How can we ensure that donations are used transparently and prevent the abuse of the public’s generosity? After all, how would we face the victims if no lessons had been learned by their deaths?

Tang Hao is a newspaper columnist, deputy editor of Shimin (Citizen) magazine, and assistant professor of politics at Huanan Normal University. His essays and opinion pieces have appeared in Contemporary International Relations, International Studies, Nanfang Daily, Yangcheng Evening News, Southern Window and many other publications.

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