Jerome A. Cohen, Political Consequences of the Sichuan Earthquake. SCMP (South China Morning Post)

May 14, 2009

The first anniversary of the tragic May 12 Sichuan earthquake is an occasion for evaluating the Chinese government’s performance in meeting the horrendous challenges presented. In many respects, it seems to be doing a commendable job.

Its most difficult problem has been dealing with the parents of the some 6,000 children who died when their schools collapsed, even while adjacent structures were often left standing. From the outset, it was taken for granted – wholly apart from the widespread suspicion that the schools had been shoddily constructed – that the government would provide not only short-term “consolation money” but also compensation to parents for the loss of what was usually their only child.

Initially, the amount of compensation was in question, and there were negotiations, petitions, protests, media interviews and attempts to bring lawsuits against governments, officials and contractors that had allegedly cut corners in erecting “tofu-dreg” classrooms and dormitories. Local officials, worried about their jobs and potential liabilities, desperately sought to impose “harmony” and prevent the aggrieved from taking their demands to the provincial capital of Chengdu and even Beijing. Eventually, most parents were induced to accept an offer of about US$8,800 per child, plus certain retirement benefits, but on condition that they agree to cease their agitation and litigation.

Money, however, is not their main concern. Many have continued to demand justice for the “wronged souls” of their children, meaning at least a fair and thorough investigation of why 7,000 schools collapsed, and publication of a list of the victims. The authorities promised such an investigation, and an early central government report acknowledged that schools were often badly built.

Yet the official line soon changed. The Sichuan government denied that there had been poor school construction. A Beijing planning official reported that the building plans showed no evidence of negligence and claimed that inspection of the demolished structures was impossible. Officials urge protesters to get on with their lives, especially by trying to have another child, as some have done.

Many parents refuse to be deflected. They insist on an investigation so the government and people can not only learn from past errors but also assign responsibility and adopt reforms. They believe that faulty construction resulted from cost-cutting, corruption and incompetence of local officials, perhaps even from central government instructions to downplay safety in favour of the economy.

Many suspect a cover-up. Yet their only progress in penetrating the wall of silence is the government’s belated assessment – without details – of the number of student deaths. No lawsuits have been accepted by the courts, and public interest lawyers have been warned away. Rights activists disseminating information have been locked up for “spreading rumours and disrupting social order”, “subversion” and “possessing state secrets”.

Investigative journalists have been suppressed. Foreign journalists have been harassed as “outside agitators”. Parents have been ordered to reject interviews on pain of arrest. Volunteers assisting the artist Ai Weiwei to collect and publish names and details of deceased students have been stopped. Recently, some parents, determined to petition Beijing, evaded travel barriers, only to be forced home to hospital confinement for possible swine flu!

Despite a brief flirtation with transparency following the earthquake, earlier promulgation of China’s first “Open Government Information” regulation and official pronouncements about the “people’s right to know”, in practice it is difficult for the regime to overcome China’s traditional government secrecy.

A credible and public government investigation and report in response to popular pressure, such as the United States has conducted after major disasters, including president John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the September 11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina, seems unimaginable to Chinese leaders.

Their pathetic concealment contrasts with the Taiwan government’s handling of the island’s massive 1999 earthquake, which triggered immediate official inquiries that revealed how cost-saving construction compromises and malfeasance resulted in unnecessary deaths and destruction. That in turn led to strengthening of safety laws, as well as civil suits and criminal prosecutions against those responsible.

Moreover, in both Taiwan and the US, uninhibited media and civic organisations supplement and sometimes substitute for official investigations and, in both places, trials before independent judges also expose misconduct.

Mainland China allows none of these outlets for expressing popular dissatisfaction, enhancing accountability and improving public safety. Nor does it tolerate free elections beyond some villages. This is not a prescription for “harmony” but for eventual political earthquakes. How high on the political Richter scale will those tremors be?

This article is published in the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong) for May 14, 2009.