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The Great Sichuan Earthquake

(This was written before I had this blog, and is posted here retroactively approximately when it was written.)

Pain is personal.  There is little more intimate than seeing a person, or a people, at a time of great loss.  It was thus a unique and moving experience to be a guest in China during their greatest natural disaster in decades, and the first to be experienced by the whole of the people openly and immediately.

Every disaster hits differently, and this one is defined by the thousands upon thousands of children buried under the remains of their school buildings.  The earthquake hit at 2:28PM.  How many children were thinking of home?  How many parents at home awaited their return?  Because of China's one-child policy, nearly every one of those children was someone's only child.  And they did not come home.

Exactly one week after the earthquake hit, at 2:28, a three minute national remembrance was held.  I was scheduled to give a talk in front of a large audience in Nanjing at 2:30.  So I found myself in the unexpected position of facing a room full of people whose language I do not speak while they and I and all around us a nation of 1.3 billion people came to a complete standstill.  Cars on the freeway, trains on their tracks, people and bicycles, everything everywhere stopped, while in our room we stood with heads bowed.

After something like that you can't just launch into a speech about how great your software is.  So I told them how I walk my children to school every morning, then return home thinking that nothing is more important than seeing them safe at the end of the day.  No one who has done that can look at a picture of a dusty backpack or a tiny hand emerging from those hard stones and not think, she could have been mine.  The stones are so hard against her skin.  She could have been mine.

This is China's 9/11, with twenty five times the dead.  The similarity is not in the event, but in how the country has responded to it emotionally.  Construction companies, unasked, rushed heavy equipment to the scene.  People set up drives to collect money, tents, shovels, anything they thought might help. Anything they had to give.  On busy streets in Shanghai we walked past piles of donated supplies being loaded onto trucks, and I held my daughter's hand tighter.  The television was all earthquake all the time. China has had many disasters, many national tragedies, but never a shared experience like this.

Changes that have been building for decades may come to a head over the earthquake and the Olympics that are following fast on its heels.  We're told that local officials, in what can only be described as a knee-jerk reaction, started going through the motions of denial and coverup.  But then the first TV station showed up.  Soon the other stations scrambled, realizing they were being scooped, and by the next day the notion of a coverup was rendered ludicrous by a public that has had a taste of real news reporting.  The government wisely decided to go the other way, and within hours the Prime Minister and the President arrived to stand in front of piles of rubble and look concerned in that special way politicians the world over have perfected.

It worked.  People are proud of what their government has done, and China will never be the same.  Next time there's a major news event the knee-jerk reaction will be different.  A lesson on the value of openness has been learned, a step in the direction of public accountability taken, civil society reinforced.

We read about Chinese anger over protests around the Olympic torch. Many Chinese genuinely don't understand and don't like the fact that in the West the Olympics are being turned into an opportunity to criticize their government.  I think I finally understand this now.

Of course Tibet and Darfur are important issues, and of course the Chinese government is behaving badly with respect to them.  But this has about as much to do with the lives and opinions of the average Chinese citizen as our government's failed policies have to do with the lives and opinions of the average American citizen.  Never confuse a government with its people.

China has been changing more rapidly and on a larger scale and in more ways than any country ever has.  And the people here are trying so hard.

Think about it from their point of view.  They have been working their fingers to the bone putting together a modern world-class country, and just when the Olympics give them a great opportunity to show it off to the world, a bunch of damned politicians go and ruin the whole thing.  They think: Couldn't people just forget all that politics and look at what we've been able to do?  Please, just look at the fine buildings and smooth roads, the green parks and modern factories, the strong schools and bright children. We've worked so very hard to build this place and all you want to talk about is what?  Politics?

People are in a grieving process not only for the earthquake but also for the lost hope that the Olympics would be a clean and brilliant coming out party.  They are angry because they are hurt.  And at the risk of stepping into a minefield, I think these fine people, wounded by great tragedy, deserve, maybe need, a joyous Olympic celebration.

Yes, there are things here, in politics and the environment, in finance and freedom, that need work.  A lot of work.  It's hard to build a country, and it's never been done in a pretty way, not ever, not anywhere.  Over all this we can worry tomorrow.

For now we should give them time, be civil in disagreements, cry with them for their dead, and when it's time to live again, let them have their Olympic party and share their joy in all that is bright and beautiful.

Theodore GrayComment