All Shook Up

Mary Hennock and Melinda Liu report in Newsweek magazine:

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.

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