Wen’s humanity brings relief to quake-rattled Chinese
The May 12 Sichuan earthquake, measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale, has helped to put the 73 million strong Chinese Communist Party back in touch with the 1.3 billion Chinese it allegedly serves.
Immortalized in a 1944 speech by Mao Zedong, the notion "serve the people" (wei ren min fu wu) became a fundamental principle of the CCP. The party closely aligned itself with the masses by promoting and adhering to the Maoist dictum.
Although the party has certainly provided China with colossal economic growth, if only to maintain its own supremacy in Chinese society, many Chinese and international observers feel that the party has lost its ability to identify with the typical man or woman on the street. Without countervailing forces such as a free press, independent judiciary and open elections, and with a legislature that is still largely considered a rubber stamp, corruption runs rampant throughout the party and clearly takes precedence over serving the people.
China's spectacular growth has provided party officials with no shortage of opportunities to abuse their positions for financial gain by participating in real estate schemes using public funds, by breaking land lease contracts with farmers for the benefit of developers who wish to build factories or shopping malls and by looking the other way in cases involving contemptuous labor practices. General secretary of the CCP Hu Jintao's prescription to stymie corruption through use of the party's central disciplinary committee and promotion of the Eight Honors and Eight Disgraces as a moral code for party cadre has achieved little.
His biggest "bust" was the arrest of Shanghai First Secretary Chen Liangyu in September 2006, who, with other Shanghai officials, had used pension funds to invest in real estate deals. As guilty as Chen was, the real motivation for his removal was purely political. Chen was aligned with the Shanghai clique of the CCP that opposed many of Hu's policies. Hu's approach to corruption is not unique in that "corruption fighting" is an often-used pretext to silence political opponents. Meanwhile, political friends keep busily involved in whatever scams they might be involved in.
Heading a government that is not known for quick action and bound by bureaucratic red tape, a mere 90 minutes after the quake, Premier Wen Jiabao was on a plane bound for the stricken area. Wen is known as the "people's premier" in that he is considered modest, engaging and does not convey the elitist image that other national leaders often do. Moreover, he specialized in geomechanics at the Beijing Institute of Geology as a college student.
Arriving in Sichuan, Wen personally directed rescue operations, at one time in tears, for five days. On the day after his arrival, megaphone in hand, he was shouting encouragement to those trapped in rubble and motivating rescuers by proclaiming, "So long as there is a glimmer of hope we shall not rest."
Wen ordered 135,000 troops to the area to help in rescue efforts. The troops lacked proper training in rescue operations and adequate amounts of appropriate equipment, yet they were highly motivated and earnest in their attempt to save as many quake victims as possible. Thankfully, they were. To date, the statistics are: 69,107 confirmed dead; 373,577 injured, 18,230 missing and 4.8 million homeless. Some estimates of economic loss run as high as $86 billion.
Realizing the magnitude of the tragedy, the CCP soon jettisoned its normal caution. National and international journalists were given unfettered access to the quake zone and allowed to report whatever they wished -- quite a decision due to the nuclear weapons research facilities in Mianyang.
Nongovernment organizations are in their infancy in China, where the government remains politically wary of large ones. Nevertheless, any controls that might have been considered were dropped, and the party-controlled press acknowledged the role of NGOs and their volunteers.
More startling was that despite the political difficulties in the relationship between China and Taiwan, rescue volunteers from Taiwan NGOs were gladly welcomed and among the first from outside China to arrive. Taiwan-based China Airlines flew 100 tons of supplies from Taiwan to Sichuan for Taiwan's Tzu Chi Foundation and the Republic of China Red Cross. All politics aside, Taiwan has amassed enormous experience in dealing with earthquake disasters.
Notwithstanding China's constantly reminding Japan about the savagery of its military invasion of China during World War II, Chinese and Japanese alike were completely bamboozled when China requested Japanese military help to move survivors and supplies. Japan simply didn't know how to deal with the request. One moment they were going to comply, the next not. Finally, Japan said that it wouldn't send military aircraft due to concern about its lingering war image raised on Chinese Web sites. However, it would send chartered aircraft.
China's epic economic growth has helped to foster a new sense of national pride shared by most Chinese. That pride was carried to a higher level when China was awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics, which to the Chinese represents the recognition of its new global status. If there was any doubt, the emotional Chinese response to demonstrations against the torch relay in London and Paris and calls for world leaders to boycott the opening ceremony of the Olympics further underlined China's burgeoning national pride and demand for international respect.
A special session of public mourning dedicated to the quake victims was held in cavernous Tiananmen Square. It was the largest expression of mourning since Mao's death. At the end of the session, the crowds spontaneously launched into chanting patriotic slogans, concluding with a resounding "Long Live China."
A new sense of trust in the party combined with a growing nationalism might well make China a more challenging country for all to deal with, if indeed the current level of both remains.
Bill Sharp teaches classes about the domestic and international politics of East Asia at Hawaii Pacific University. He writes a monthly commentary for the Star-Bulletin. firstname.lastname@example.org