Crisis Management: China Earthquake Response – Stunning and Instructive: From archives
Who would have predicted China giving the world a crisis management lesson through its handling of the May 12 earthquake? Despite an inhumane recent history from Tiananmen Square to Tibet suppression and previous decades of crushing communist rule, the government’s response to the Sichuan temblor has been surprisingly human. It has given most of us pause about the Asian giant. In fact pro-Tibet protests and anti-Olympics demonstrations are on pause. Everyone is taking notice.
Surely empathy toward the deaths of thousands and the suffering of millions drives much global sensitivity, but the national government is getting deserved credit for its response. While many wonder whether the quake actions and unprecedented openness will come undone later, let’s at least note here the impressive steps taken so far.
- Starting at the top, Premier Wen Jiabao flew toward the scene within two hours of the quake. The 65-year old man met with victims for four days to near exhaustion and is something of a national hero. Eerily reminiscent of Rudy Giuliani after 9/11, Wen put a benevolent face on government seen throughout China and the world on TV. That he so quickly dove into the ruins and misery suggests to me a gut reaction to do what was right rather than what was expedient.
- 100,000 troops, paramilitary police, firefighters and civilians poured into the quake region as Beijing announced it would cut planned spending 5% to create a $10 billion rebuilding fund. It promised to rebuild elsewhere a town that lost about two-thirds of its buildings and people.
- International aid and media were welcomed.
- China suspended its one child per family rule for certain quake-affected families.
- Threatened by earthquake-created lakes possibly overflowing, Beijing continued ordering evacuations and warning citizens of unsafe areas. In fact, the government has kept earthquake information flowing on actions taken, casualty numbers, and even difficulties encountered.
- Ever-twitchy to dissent on the Internet, Beijing has allowed much criticism that has largely focused on corrupt local officials who permitted faulty construction of school buildings that collapsed on thousands of children. TheInternational Herald Tribune quoted a man who lost a 16-year old daughter saying, “The people responsible for this should be brought here and have a bullet put in their head.” Angry parents yelled at one local official until she fainted. A much-circulated Internet photo shows another official kneeling for mercy before marching parents. (One ominous side-note, amidst all the Internet freedom about the quake, the government still stifles Tibet criticism there.)
- The government fired three local officials because of the shoddy schools and launched an investigation. It suspended its beloved Olympics torch run and held a national 3 minutes of silence. The civilian outpouring of assistance has been astonishing.
All of this contrasts sharply with the 1976 earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of Chinese and was shielded from outside view.
At the risk of being cynical, there is a certain chicken and the egg quality to the government response. Vast use of digital-age communications by young people throughout China immediately thrust images of the disaster everywhere and put world eyes on Beijing. With the impending Olympics plus overtures of openness, the government could not afford to botch the quake. Nevertheless, I think The Wall Street Journal got it right when it said, “Natural disasters sometimes leave damaged governments among the rubble… it is increasingly clear that the catastrophe has actually strengthened the leadership in Beijing.”