Chinese Intellectuals Contemplate the Earthquake: Lessons We Are Learning

Southern Metropolis News published messages from several dozen Chinese columnists, scholars, and social workers contemplating the devastating Sichuan earthquake. Several of them compared the government’s openness during the current earthquake with its hiding of information during Tangshan Earthquake in 1976.

Sociologist Zheng Yefu wrote:

We knew little about it when a devastating earthquake struck Tangshan City in 1976. There was just a brief news announcement about it. Thirty-two years later we are paying close attention to the suffering and rescue of our countrymen. Besides enormous grief and sorrow, we saw something new from any past disasters in China — that the general public are well-informed about it. And when the people are informed, their hearts can be brought together.

Zhan Jiang, a professor of journalism, wrote:

College students in Beijing expressed their blessings to the people far away in Sichuan by lighting candles on campus. I could see the sparkling lights outside the window of my office. We didn’t know that hundreds of thousands of lives passed away during the Tangshan earthquake in 1976 until many years after the disaster took place. Information on disasters is no longer blocked in China 30 years after the country’s reform and opening-up. We’ve accumulated abundant material wealth, and we’ve learned about the universal value of humanitarianism.

Historian He Zhaowu wrote:

We deeply mourn for our compatriots who died in the Sichuan earthquake. We pray for the survivors, and we hope people all over the world can provide help to them. It was ridiculous for China not to accept foreign aid during the Tangshan earthquake 30 years ago. We shouldn’t repeat that. This is a disaster concerning human beings all over the world. I wish all people in the country could work together and overcome the challenges of this disaster.

Some praised the Chinese government for swiftly rescuing those struck by the earthquake, and urged it to further embrace freedom of information.

Qiu Liben, editor of Asia Weekly, wrote:

The Sichuan earthquake took away many lives, but it didn’t take away the spirit of the Chinese people. It helps to bring people’s hearts together when the Chinese government chooses to provide open access to information about the disaster to the public. When China stands up from the rubble of the Sichuan earthquake and embraces freedom of information, it will be respected by people all over the world.

Columnist Lian Yue wrote:

Timely information helps disaster relief work. It helps to reduce casualties, helps to release anxiety, and helps to console those who are suffering. It helps us to become compassionate, and helps to boost our national image. Through the media coverage of the earthquake we know that people are suffering, they are perservering, they are calling for help, and they trust us. I want to express my appreciation to all those who are providing us the information on the earthquake.

Business consultant Wu Xianghong wrote:

When a society is struck by a massive disaster, the people should stop their criticisms and wholeheartedly support the government. The government, in return, should safeguard its citizens’ freedom of speech in peaceful times, to deserve the trust and support of its people.

Writer He Bin wrote:

Disasters should not only unite a nation, but also lead it to reflect on itself. Rumors are not terrifying to a nation that is good at self-reflection. Rumors could kill people. But it could be more dangerous for a nation to eliminate rumors. After all, rumors will die out when there is free flow of information.

Some commented on things the government and society could have done better.

Cui Weiping, a critic and scholar of literature and film, wrote:

To the kids who closed your eyes in rubble, we are sorry. We failed to provide you solid teaching buildings.

A professor of philosophy Yuan Weishi wrote:

The government has fulfilled its responsibility in providing swift and effective relief to those struck by the earthquake. It should be praised and supported. However, it’s a pity that civil groups are not playing their due role.  

Bao Yujun, former editor of People’s Daily, wrote:

Four massive disasters have struck China in the past five months: the snow storm, hand-foot-and-mouth disease, the collision of two trains in Shandong, and the Sichuan Earthquake. Each time top leaders of the government came to provide relief. On one hand, it shows that the government cares a lot about the well-being of the citizens. On the other hand, it exposes systematic problems of China.

Social worker Chen Si wrote:

We should put aside what we are doing and try our best to rescue the people who are on the edge of life. We also need more professional disaster relief groups. It might be a good idea to involve non-govenmental organizations and other civil groups to establish professional relief teams.

Some call for attention to potential problems that could follow the earthquake:
Gao Yaojie, a doctor and AIDS prevention worker, wrote:

I felt the shaking of the earthquake in Zhengzhou City on the afternoon of May 12th. At first I thought it was due to some construction work. I was heartbroken when I saw the news of the Wenchuan earthquake on TV. The Public Health Ministry is calling for volunteers to donate their blood. I want to emphasize that we should make sure the blood is not contaminated. We should also make sure that monetary donations are vigorously administered and properly sent to those who need help.

Ding Xueliang, a college professor, wrote:

There are a number of dams, power plants and other major projects in the areas struck by the earthquake. The local people and the media should pay careful attention to their conditions in order to prevent further potential disasters. God bless the Sichuan people.

Several asked the government to suspend the Olympic Torch Relay and lower the national flag to mourn the dead.

Historian Ge Jianxiong wrote:

I suggest we suspend the Olympic Torch Relay, consider postponing all other celebrations, and mobilize the whole nation to provide relief to those struck by the earthquake. Let us stand together. Disasters can make a nation stronger.

Law professor He Weifang wrote:

So many disasters have happened this year! Let’s not hold any celebrations. Let’s express our grief to our countrymen. Let’s donate the money intended for celebrations to those families suffering in the disaster.

Cultural critic Wang Xiaoyu wrote:

I hope that people in the affected areas cut off from the outside could try to help themselves. I wish Chinese citizens could cultivate the habit of self-governance, and calmly deal with various unexpected disasters. I wish our country well. I wish the national flag would be lowered in memory of the people who passed away in the earthquake.

Historian Qin Hui wrote:

When so many lives are at stake, the government, the Chinese society, and the world should try their best to provide relief to those struck by the earthquake. Nothing is more important than that, including the Olympic Games.

Others wrote that the disaster could be a unique learning experience for the Chinese government and people.

Zhang Yihe, artist and writer, wrote:

I’ve stopped writing. I’ve stopped entertainment. I have been staying in front of my television screen since the afternoon of May 12 when the earthquake struck. I am keeping a vigil for the dead, and for the living. Those who’ve died didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. Those who’ve survived seem to come back from another world and embrace each other for consolation. I am full of tears, and keep asking myself: Is this just a moment for the government and the people to fight the disaster and provide relief to those who are suffering? No. The disaster and its victims are also providing redemption to the government and the people: those in power are learning to be humane, and the Chinese people are learning to be compassionate.

Columnist Qiu Feng wrote:

We human beings can never put nature under our complete control. However, good social organizations could reduce the harm of natural disasters to a minimum. The traditional belief systems could provide consolation to the survivors. The earthquake has tested the wholesomeness of China’s social and spiritual systems. If we are wise enough, the earthquake could provide a precious learning opportunity for us. To our pleasure, we’ve seen new and encouraging signs in the country. I wish this disaster could become the starting point for China to improve its institutions and for the Chinese people to rebuild their spiritual life.

[Translated by CDT]