Test of China’s openness

As the death toll from a devastating earthquake in south-western China continues to climb, the disaster is proving a credibility test for the government, whose mandate is derived from maintaining stability and social order and providing for the welfare of people. As China no longer regards the death toll in natural disasters as a state secret, pressure for a rapid response and complete transparency in the disclosure of information has built up. The disaster comes on the heels of a major human calamity in neighbouring Burma where rescue efforts and aid to millions of people struck by a cyclone have been impeded by the secrecy and opaque nature of the military junta. China is eager to set a different example.

Striking in the early hours of Monday afternoon, the powerful earthquake wrecked one of China’s most populous regions, toppling buildings, schools and a chemical plant. The area of Wenchuan county in Sichuan province where the earthquake occurred is home to diverse minority groups and to the Woolong Natural reserve where 10% of China’s famed giant-panda population live. The capital of the province, Chengdu — a city of 11 million people — was crippled by power outages and the collapse of telephone networks. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who arrived there hours after the earthquake struck, was reported leaving for the epicentre of the disaster after appealing for calm and unity.

The quake, at 10 km below the surface, was shallow, “which means it released more destructive energy,” Zhang Guomin, a researcher at the China Seismology Bureau, told Xinhua. “We have to guard against mudslides and collapsing buildings.” President Hu Jintao has ordered the deployment of rescue troops to help the relief operations. Some 50,000 soldiers have been sent to Sichuan province after the magnitude of the disaster became clear. Because of the collapse of road networks in the province some of the troops were approaching Wenchuan county on foot.

Meanwhile, rescuers recovered at least 50 bodies from the debris of a high school in Dujiangyan, Xinhua said. As many as 900 students were buried in the rubble. Some were struggling to break free, “while others were crying out for help”, the agency’s report said. Gathered in the rain near the wreckage, families of the trapped teenagers were waiting as rescuers were writing the names of the dead on a blackboard.

“I’m particularly saddened by the number of students and children affected by this tragedy,” US President George W Bush said in a statement. The Sichuan earthquake is the strongest earthquake to hit China in 58 years. A more powerful earthquake of 8.6-magnitude was recorded in August 1950 in eastern Tibet. Incomplete records state 780 people perished at the time.

China’s biggest natural calamity occurred in the middle of the country’s political isolation during the Mao Zedong’s era. Anywhere between 250,000 and 650,000 people were killed when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake in July 1976 flattened the city of Tangshan in northern China. At that time, the Chinese government, which advocated self-sufficiency in everything from food to medical aid, barred international relief efforts and dealt with the emergency on its own. Thousands of people are believed to have died because of China’s refusal. — IPS