Thursday, May 29, 2008

Sichuan's Political Earthquake

I've been abroad and away from China during the earthquake in Sichuan so I've felt fairly removed from the situation. This has felt particularly true given that the quake happened so soon after Myanmar's devastating cyclone which seems to have taken significantly more lives, though the death tolls of each disaster are still climbing. In context, this recent disaster is far from the worst in China's history, though it has been one of the worst since China's market reforms in the 1980s and has almost certainly been the most publicized.

What is different this time around, is state media's focus and coverage of the event and its openness in allowing foreign news media to report on the events. Some like Mike from Shenzhen Undercover make the claim that the events will be remembered like September 11th in that it is changing the way people think about what they had previously taken for granted. While I've been skeptical, I've also noticed that the death toll continues to rise. The WSJ has an opinion piece that talks in similar lines that this event is changing the way people think about government. While I think both may overstretch given that at least in the case of WSJ's piece, I'm skeptical about how much of China's citizens have believed they could trust in government, in the very least, people are questioning its role. In the long term, that may not be such a bad thing:

The earthquake in Sichuan has transformed China in many ways. Abroad, China has switched from victimizer to victim. At home, Olympic excitement has been replaced by the sadness of death and destruction, and xenophobic anger has been exchanged for a new spirit of volunteerism.

This last change presents the most difficult test for China's leadership, which sees an old and fearsome dragon of civil society raising its head. [...]
Over the past two years, [China's government] has tightened restrictions on NGOs considerably; obtaining the permissions to register a new NGO has become all but impossible. More likely the state will try to co-opt this civic energy. This is already happening. Five government ministries issued a joint set of guidelines for managing donations last week.

In freer countries, philanthropic organizations fill a vital role, and not just in times of disaster. In the wake of the Sichuan earthquake, Chinese citizens are increasingly aware that government can't solve all problems, all the time. Civil society can help. Beijing is right to be worried.

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