The changing face of China between two disasters

June 17th, 2008 - 9:35 am ICT by IANS  

By Lin Jianyang and Cheng Yunjie
Beijing, June 17 (Xinhua) Following the devastating earthquake that rocked southwest China May 12, a young woman sent her own shockwaves through the internet. Under the name “Post-90 Xiao Yun”, she uploaded about 10 photos of herself, including some nude images, on www.tianya.cn, one of the country’s leading online communities with an appeal to the public to donate to the quake relief effort.

Xiao Yun, who claimed to be 19 and a native of Sichuan province living in Beijing, wrote that she was a student and was pleased to see people across the country helping Sichuan. She called for further donations and promised more photos as an incentive.

The move caused a public uproar and wide divisions.

Whether her behavior was proper or not is open to debate, but it serves as an example of how irrevocably Chinese society has changed since the Tangshan earthquake in 1976.

On July 28, 1976, towards the end of the 10-year Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the industrial city Tangshan, 150 km east of Beijing, was devastated by a 7.8-magnitude earthquake.

Nationwide, almost 400 million frightened people abandoned their homes for rough shelters.

In these emergency shanty towns, slogans such as “Denounce Deng while conducting disaster relief” were ubiquitous. They referred to the future Chinese leader and author of the country’s reform and opening up, Deng Xiaoping, who had been rehabilitated in 1973 but was still under attack from his political rivals as an alleged inciter of mass protests.

Posters and paintings of these slogans were everywhere; reminders that revolutionary class struggle was still the primary mission for China.

So there were few reports about the rescue and relief work by troops and members of the public. The media reported, instead, how people in quake-ravaged Tangshan held “denouncing-Deng meetings” in the rubble.

The Tangshan earthquake claimed more than 240,000 lives. But the death toll was only revealed three years later, after Deng took power.

Thirty-two years later, after a more powerful earthquake, centered on the mountainous town Wenchuan, people in China and around the world saw a Chinese society coming to terms with many “firsts”.

Within minutes, the government announced the disaster and made a swift response. President Hu Jintao told the country that saving lives was the top priority, ordering all-out efforts to help survivors.

Just three hours later, Premier Wen Jiabao flew to Sichuan on a hastily-prepared flight and stood among the debris. “As long as there is a glimmer of hope, we should pull out all the stops,” he told the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops and other rescuers.

Three days later, the quake relief headquarters under Wen’s command estimated that more than 50,000 were feared dead. It was the first Chinese government announcement of an estimated toll in a major disaster.

By Sunday, the death roll was 69,170 with 17,427 missing, according to the State Council Information Office. A total of 374,159 people were injured, and more than 1.41 million survivors had been evacuated.

In another first, a three-day period of national mourning for the dead was declared and flags were lowered to half-mast.

In an unusual move, President Hu visited tent factories in the southeastern province of Zhejiang, a major manufacturing base, to urge them to step up production, as tents were badly needed by survivors.

The world saw an orderly, united and stable China, free from rumours.

A much stronger economy and a more active society after 30 years of development has enabled people to mobilize and muster resources at a time of great need.

Wang Tongsan, an economist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says the economic progress has laid a solid basis for the government in its efforts to conduct rescue and relief work as well as reconstruction.

By Sunday, the government disaster relief fund had reached 53.76 billion yuan ($7.68 billion) - 49.15 billion yuan from the central budget and 4.61 billion yuan from local budgets.

Economic development has also brought advanced technologies and improved management which allowed the rapid deployment of hundreds of thousands of rescuers to the quake zone.

An estimated 10 million volunteers from across the country went to aid survivors, taking part in rescue work, medical and psychological care, relief distribution, maintaining social order and cultural activities.

In the face of the catastrophe, people across the nation acted and did what they could to help, despite the controversy.

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