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Society & Culture

Seeking the Silver Lining in the Earthquake

Apr 29, 2013
  • Xiong Lei

    Guest Professor, Renmin University

Even though any earthquake is an unexpected disaster, few were able to foresee that the southwestern Chinese province Sichuan could be struck by two devastating earthquakes in such a short time span. Five years after an M8 earthquake jolted Wenchuan in May 2008, claiming nearly 70,000 lives, an M7 earthquake hit Ya’an on April 20, with a death toll of about 200, as of April 23.

Evil seldom arrives alone, as the saying goes, and thus the Ya’an earthquake caught us midstream in our effort to contain the H7N9 influenza virus. The new strain of bird flu has infected 108 people in several eastern, central and northern provinces or municipalities as of April 23, leaving 22 dead.

The Chinese government and people have been fighting on both fronts and have handled the crises more calmly than before. In the latest disaster, as in all previous crises, they moved swiftly to rescue and relieve.

Premier Li Keqiang flew to the quake-hit area hours after the quake took place; more than 8,000 troops of the People’s Liberation Army reached the area before the end of the day; and civilians across the country started to donate to those affected by the quake as soon as they learned the news. Two days after the quake, a Tibetan friend in Yushu of Qinghai Province told me that Buddhist monks in Yushu County, which also experienced an M7.1 quake in April 2010, pooled a total of 270,000 RMB to support those affected in Sichuan.

There is no doubt that devastating disasters like the Wenchuan and Ya’an earthquakes are destructive, yet they also serve as a bond for the nation to unite over. The people of Ya’an, and the whole nation, will once again transform the sorrow into strength and stand up from the disaster undaunted. But what is more important than remaining unbeaten by the disaster is that we always see something new in our fight against a catastrophe, and we always make progress in coping with such disasters.

The Wenchuan earthquake marked the first time in China that non-governmental human and material resources were involved in disaster rescue and relief on a large scale. Thousands of volunteers made history in China’s disaster management in 2008. It also marked the first time that the rescue and relief work was televised live around the clock.

While the unprecedented effort won extensive admiration at home and abroad, shortcomings and misconducts in both government and volunteer rescue work were exposed through media coverage.

For instance, people realized that volunteers’ initiatives, though commendable, could impede professional recue teams’ moves if poorly organized. As highways to the stricken areas were damaged or destroyed, transportation was compromised. Volunteers’ vehicles often worsened traffic congestions and impeded the mobility of professional rescuers. Unprofessional volunteers also consumed precious resources and supplies for the affected people.

People remembered this lesson. At the start of rescue work in Ya’an this year, many bloggers suggested that unprofessional volunteers withhold their attempted moves to go to the stricken area, in order to guarantee mobility for the army and professional rescue teams. This echoes the central government’s call to rationally execute aid to Ya’an.

BBS and microblogs also reminded people that they shouldn’t place phone calls to the quake-stricken areas in order to save the telecommunication resources for emergency responses. People concerned for the quake-affected areas are acting more considerately, like donating money and blood in their home cities. 

Such consciousness has helped improve the efficiency of the disaster relief and kept the rescue and relief work in good order. It also indicates a social maturity and progress.

Also improved has been media coverage of the disaster – five years ago, some journalists were criticized by netizens to get information at the expense of victims and families who had already suffered. “Media people have no right to consume the victims’ trauma,” one netizen observed.

And the media has learned. This time, we have seen more thoughtful and respectful reporting of the event, although the overall coverage still has room to be desired.

One is toughened in hardships to become successful, and so is a nation. The key point is that they must learn from the experiences, both positive and negative.

China is prone to disasters and calamities, and the Chinese nation has sustained its 5,000-year-old civilization and developed through such experiences. When a population becomes good at learning from these miseries, any destruction can be turned into a constructive force, and the nation becomes invincible.  

Xiong Lei is a guest professor of journalism at Renmin University of China.


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