How the Earthquake Changed China

The Chinese phrase for "crisis" combines the words for both "danger" and "opportunity." That pretty much describes how the 7.9-magnitude earthquake that flattened parts of Sichuan also shattered parts of the traditional social order—for worse but also for better. New forces are now emerging from the rubble that will determine how China is ruled and perceived far after the crisis has passed. The official scramble to assist disaster victims has been accompanied by an unusual display of government transparency and openness, creating new opportunities for old rivals such as Taiwan and Japan; breaking down some barriers between rich and poor; injecting new levels of trust between the Communist Party and the people it rules, and offering those people new liberties.

In other words, China's new postquake social landscape features some surprising winners and losers. First are the leaders of the Communist Party, who are enjoying a surge in popularity. That's due to an outburst of solidarity and support both at home and abroad—thanks, in part, to their quick response to the crisis. The deaths of thousands of children in flimsy schools has prompted many of China's rural residents to seek allies in Beijing and to speak out with newfound freedom against crooked local cadres and flaws in the education system. New allies are pushing the party in the direction in which it has wanted to go for some time but for which it has, until now, lacked the courage. Before the quake, Beijing's signature slogan of a "harmonious society"—meaning one with a decent welfare system and that was corruption-free—was widely mocked. Now Sichuan has become the crucible for experiments in philanthropy and accountability that promise, if successful, to set new standards nationwide. And ordinary citizens are benefiting. Reconstruction has expanded the space for civic groups to operate; many are working unregistered or across provincial boundaries, regardless of legal niceties. There are real, if fragile, openings for protesters and media. Marches by bereaved parents are generally being permitted, although they're denied access to school sites. And the outrage sparked by so many students' deaths has focused Beijing's scrutiny not just on building standards, but also the cash-strapped rural school system long criticized for second-rate teaching and equipment.

Many overstretched local officials, eager to salvage their tarnished reputations, are also proving grateful for the help. In the early '80s, Deng Xiaoping told Chinese that to get rich is "glorious," setting off an ongoing stampede to make money. Now some of the newly rich are working to create a legacy of social welfare.

Other winners to emerge from the dust include China's neighbors. The last time a comparable calamity hit China was the 1976 Tangshan earthquake. Following that catastrophe, which left as many as 240,000 people dead, the regime was criticized for not accepting foreign offers of assistance. This time, Beijing has opened its arms to foreign help—including from former rivals. Rescue teams from Japan and Taiwan were among the first outsiders to arrive. Just three years ago, strident Chinese protesters besieged Japanese establishments in anger over Tokyo's perceived attempts to whitewash Japanese aggression during the 1930s and '40s. But when the quake hit, Chinese President Hu Jintao had just returned from a key fence-mending trip to Tokyo, the first by a Chinese president in a decade. He quickly invited Japanese assistance and, within days, Japanese rescuers were working alongside the People's Liberation Army.

Taiwan's government has also often been the target of Beijing's wrath in the past. The Chinese regime sees the self-governing island as a renegade province that must be reunited by force, if necessary. But Taiwan's pro-independence Democratic People's Party was swept from power in March elections, and Sichuan's quake became a further catalyst for warming relations. J. C. Shieh, the head of Taiwan's 921 Foundation—formed after a major 1999 earthquake—got permission to visit Sichuan, where he gave political tips to more than 100 fledgling civic activists who had gathered to assist relief efforts.

Domestic civic groups are emerging as another postquake winner. The stereotypical old Chinese NGO lacked professional backup and had a touchy relationship with Beijing. Now a new breed of nonprofit is appearing. It features rich philanthropists offering reconstruction money and business skills as bait for greater accountability. Taiwan's Shieh argues that Beijing should allow such local NGOs to grow stronger in order to assist official efforts to provide social care—saying that whether Beijing complies will be "a test for Chinese wisdom."

Just such a test is taking place in Mianzhu, a city of 520,000 people—most of whom were rendered homeless by the quake. An unusual experiment in urban reconstruction is taking shape there with input from Wang Ping, 52, head of the China Social Entrepreneur Foundation. CSEF breaks the old NGO mold. Wang is a party member and a former investment banker with high-level business and political contacts. Within days of the quake, she began talking to the mayor of Mianzhu about reconstruction plans, and then brought in the consultancy McKinsey to design part of the economic recovery scheme.

Thirty years after China first opened its doors to capitalism and foreign investment, Wang and CSEF are carrying on the tradition of Deng's bold pragmatism. The group's brochure even quotes Deng approvingly: "Let some get rich first, then help others to get rich after them, and in the end we will all achieve common wealth." CSEF's official godparent is the State Council's Anti-Poverty Bureau, and its coffers are filled by corporate donors. Unlike most Chinese NGOs, CSEF has a board packed with business leaders, including the bosses of Taikang Life Insurance, the NASDAQ-listed chip firm Vimico and the Hong Kong-listed real-estate firm Country Garden.

China's new rich classes have often been painted as only interested in acquiring more wealth, but Sichuan is highlighting another side. They were products of the idealistic 1980s, when getting rich was linked to social transformation and experimentation, explains Victor Yuan, 43—founder of market-research group Horizon—who works with Wang. Many held onto big-picture dreams, and are now secure enough to put their ideals into action. Philanthropy is "growing, it's a new trend," says Yuan. This is good news for the party as it tries to curb resentment at a gaping rich-poor divide.

As for those plutocrats who have not gotten the message themselves, China's Netizens have been quick to help, scourging those entrepreneurs who failed to give generously enough. After real-estate mogul Wang Shi donated 2 million RMB to the relief effort ($290,000), for example, bloggers pounced. "Not enough to buy a two-bedroom flat in Shanghai!" scoffed one.

Wealthy philanthropists are also lending their business skills. CSEF's strategy is to prove that services work better if they're based on consultation and research. Corporate know-how is key, and that's where McKinsey and Horizon come in. Their surveys found that 20 percent of tent-dwelling quake refugees would go back to their own homes within six months with a little financial aid, so they're advising the mayor to divert some resettlement money toward repairing permanent homes rather than building temporary ones. Moreover, while Chinese officials have generally focused on ramping up local economic growth, Wang is now urging them to hold consultations on other, softer social goods such as job security, disabled needs and mental-health care. She says these efforts should be seen as "community driven." "We don't like to use the words 'self-government'," she adds after a pause.

As Wang suggests, the Communist Party has no reason to fear political challenges from newly empowered civic activists. There's little sign they intend to link up with, say, protesting parents and they're determined not to blow this golden opportunity to weave themselves into China's social fabric. CSEF supports the political establishment. And even the libertarian blogger An Zhu, whose NGO set up a tent library in Mianzhu, says criticizing corruption now would "only give rise to conflict … We can't change things overnight but we can serve people better."

Meanwhile, apart from these civic actors, perhaps China's biggest postquake winners are its top leaders. Surprisingly swift and highly publicized visits to Sichuan, first by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and then by party head Hu, boosted their popularity—and gave them more political leverage over local authorities who routinely try to evade everything from taxes to environmental protection codes. In the postquake aftermath, 28 Sichuan officials have been sacked for graft or inaccurate casualty counts. In Tuanjie village near Dujiangyan, Party Secretary Liu Dingshuang and his family were caught selling goods from their store—at inflated prices—right after the disaster (though Liu denied any such role). This price gouging enraged Zhang Mingzhi, a neighbor who tipped off party watchdogs. By May 16, Liu had been fired. "Before, our problems were small and we handled them ourselves, without reporting to higher-ups," whistle-blower Zhang said. "But now people really are suffering. I had to do something."

Multiply that sentiment by tens of millions and it spells trouble for cadres caught on the wrong side of public opinion. The quake-zone forays by Wen and Hu are a new measuring stick by which rural officials—long prone to corruption and nepotism—are now being judged. Citizens across Sichuan grumble that village authorities were too slow to comfort victims who'd lost homes and relatives in the disaster. In Luocheng village, near Shifang city, more than nine tenths of the buildings collapsed and 68 of 2,980 residents died. "Yet our local leaders were a rarer sight than Communist Party Chairman Hu Jintao himself!" snorted villager Peng Minggui.

For now, most public anger against crooked bureaucrats is focused on the issue of shoddy building standards—which many parents blame for the collapse of more than 7,000 schoolrooms. "Is this a school, or a tomb?" yelled Mi Wenbing in the rubble of the toppled Luocheng School, where he showed a reporter how weak the mortar was by pulverizing it with his hands. One mother, Wei Qingrong, feels especially aggrieved. Her late father had helped build the school in 1995–96 and she recalls him comparing it to "bean-curd dregs," or doufuzha—a metaphor for flimsy construction. "He said workers should've used 10 bags of cement, but instead they used four [and substituted sand as filler]," she says. "Once he even warned, 'If there's an earthquake, many children will die'." And sure enough, when the big one hit, more than 80 of about 300 students were killed—including Wei's 13-year-old daughter.

The blight isn't confined to flimsy buildings, however—nor to the disaster zone itself. The quake has unleashed a fierce debate over the quality of Chinese schooling, especially among parents who now believe the education system tolerated not only flimsy construction, but substandard—and possibly negligent—instructors as well. Just before the tremors started, for example, several teachers at a lower-class Wuhu Primary School decided to play mah-jongg, so they locked kids in a classroom—leading to numerous deaths. "It's precisely because schooling is free that some teachers are of low character," complained Luocheng father Zhen Shaorong, reflecting the common perspective that topnotch teachers gravitate toward fee-charging private schools. The fact is that China's national primary-education system has been ailing for years. During the '90s, Beijing promised nine years of free mandatory education—but required local authorities to at least partly bankroll school construction and other expenses. Many villages lacked the funds. Luocheng, for example, is a hardscrabble hamlet where garlic farmers plant on average only .02 of a hectare of land each. To make matters worse, in many places local officials and construction bosses took cuts of construction money for themselves, leaving even less cash for proper building.

Across Sichuan, some parents of dead students have banded together in protest against this flawed system, threatening to bring their complaints all the way to the central government. Luocheng villagers said they'll await the results of architectural inspections, which higher-ups promised by late June. "If we're not satisfied, we'll go all the way to Beijing," claims Mi. "I'll use the rest of my life to seek justice for my child." Local discontent is so potentially volatile that for three weeks now, China's media censors have started telling domestic editors to avoid coverage of substandard school construction.

Yet in many ways, the genie is already out of the bottle. Before the calamity, many farmers avoided criticizing local officials for fear of risking their livelihoods, or even their lives. But now some Chinese seem exhilarated to think that the central government may be willing to lend them an ear—a perception encouraged by the government's more transparent flow of information right after the quake. Even on an individual level, citizens are feeling more confident about challenging authority, at least rhetorically, when they believe they're right. Many now seem eager to share their suspicions with the media. Zheng Shaorong eagerly shows a foreign reporter cell-phone photos of hollow walls in the school where his daughter died. Another Luocheng resident, who declines to give his name out of fear of retaliation, recites a list of economic irregularities that he intends to ask authorities about once things calm down. Meanwhile, the rise of volunteerism reflects a strengthening of civil society and of grass-roots associations that transcend provincial frontiers.

As all this suggests, the signs are growing that 2008 will turn out to be a remarkable year of change in China's modern history. Beijing's Olympics preparations may have set the stage, but so far, the Sichuan quake has had the biggest impact on China's national psyche. To be sure, some moves are afoot—especially among state media censors and Internet police—to restore the old status quo. Still, the country has achieved a new high-water mark in terms of the development of civil society, the push for greater government accountability and the accessibility of a party leadership that's reached out to underprivileged masses at home and newfound allies abroad. These experiences will make it easier for Chinese to respond well the next time they face a major crisis—and to seek new opportunities for growth amid the danger.

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