Beijing's quick response to the Sichuan earthquake, including allowing foreign
experts to take part in the rescue effort, has earned the Chinese Communist
Party (CCP) leadership relatively high marks for openness - and for its
apparent readiness to live up to the "putting people first" credo.
Yet more than three weeks after disaster struck on May 12, the attention of the
public - as well as China observers worldwide - has turned to the CCP's glaring
failings in areas ranging from governance and transparency to the quality and
rectitude of officials.
Moreover, the Politburo under President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao has
yet to demonstrate sufficient resolve to penalize
cadres whose dereliction of duty, corruption and malfeasance have exacerbated
the damage of this "natural disaster of the century".
Survivors of the quake, which killed some 70,000 people and left at least 12
million homeless, have asked central and local authorities to account for large
numbers of so-called "tofu buildings" - particularly jerry-built schools and
dormitories - which collapsed like jigsaw-puzzles even as more sturdy
government and office edifices have remained virtually undamaged.
According to structural engineer Guo Xun, a National Seismological Bureau (NSB)
researcher who conducted surveys right after the quake, a high percentage of
school buildings in the affected zone had flouted government construction
criteria by using "minimal amounts" of steel and concrete.
In late May, a few thousand aggrieved parents - whose children perished under
the debris of tofu structures - staged protests throughout the worst-hit
counties of Beichuan and Wenchuan and the city of Dujiangyan. This was despite
an early pledge by the Education Ministry that all Sichuan school buildings
would be re-examined, and that cadres found cutting corners in construction
materials would be "severely punished".
Angry parents in the Mianzhu district of Dujiangyan - where 127 students were
killed on the collapse of Fuxin School Primary School - became so agitated that
local CCP secretary Jiang Guohua fell to his knees and begged them not to take
the case to the provincial government.
To this day, however, neither the Sichuan government nor the Education Ministry
has given the exact number of teachers and students killed in the quake.
Estimates by Western experts ran between 10,000 and 15,000. Feng Congde, a
researcher for the New York-based Human Rights in China, cited figures showing
some 35% of the fatalities were children and their teachers.
Wen, who won praise for twice venturing into quake zones, has been criticized
for failing to openly decry corrupt officials responsible for the sub-standard
structures. This contrasted markedly with his predecessor, Zhu Rongji, who
coined the phrase "tofu engineering" after inspecting shoddy dams and levies
that gave way easily during massive flooding along the Yangtze River in the
summer of 1998.
The then-premier told the Chinese media he would personally go after officials
who had embezzled funds that were originally earmarked for making sturdy
embankments. While a dozen-odd mid-ranking cadres were penalized, Zhu was
unable to eradicate the problem.
Fans of Wen, arguably the most popular cadre in China today, however, have
defended the premier by saying given that tofu buildings are omnipresent in
rural China, a public outburst of anger by the head of the State Council would
unnecessarily vitiate the authority of the party at a critical juncture in
An equally disturbing problem exposed by the tremors is China's woefully
inadequate forewarning system against natural and man-made disasters. This is
despite the fact that after the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic
(SARS) in early 2003, the Hu-Wen team has prided itself on having set up a
24-hour, computerized, nationwide advance-warning network to detect early signs
of troubles ranging from peasant riots and quasi-terrorist plots to typhoons
Within hours of the earthquake catastrophe, forums and chat rooms on several
popular websites were replete with stories about "predictions" of the tremors
having been made since early this year by people ranging from Monday-morning
quarterbacking fengshui masters to bona fide geological experts.
In response to allegations about incompetence, the NSB said a week after the
tremors that it "had never received any information from individuals,
organizations or government units" that could be construed as "predictions" or
"portents" of the quake.
Yet there is incontrovertible evidence that a steady stream of scientific
papers had since 2002 highlighted the probability of massive tremors in
Sichuan. A former NSB researcher, respected geophysicist Geng Qingguo, told the
Hong Kong media that he had on April 30 sent his former employer a detailed
report that warned an earthquake of magnitude 7 (on the Chinese scale) or above
could hit Sichuan in the first half of May.
Similarly, Chengdu University of Technology geologist Li Yong said he and
experts from the United States and Britain had late last year published a paper
predicting massive tremors for parts of Sichuan. Li said if the authorities had
paid more attention to publicly available information such as journal articles,
rescue and relief work could have been much better planned and executed.
Given other highly credible assessments of possible earthquakes in areas
including the Three Gorges Dam, the Wen cabinet is under heavy pressure to
demonstrate to Chinese residents as well as China-based foreign businessmen and
professionals that the government has what it takes to preempt or at least
adequately handle further natural disasters.
As Sichuan is one of China's most important bases for military - especially
nuclear-related - research, the quake has laid bare the highly problematic
"state within a state" status of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). The city
of Mianyang, which is close to the epicenter, is home to a labyrinthine network
of nuclear weapons laboratories, including those under the world-renowned China
Academy of Engineering Physics, the PLA's top nuclear research facility.
Vice Minister of the newly established Ministry of Environmental Protection
(MOEP), Wu Xiaoqing, said in late May that 35 of the 50 "sources of radiation"
buried by quake-induced debris had been secured or otherwise put out of harm's
way. The rest have been located but are unreachable under collapsed buildings.
While Wu did not disclose what the radioactive substances were, it is believed
that they are not related to military institutions. As a civilian unit, the
MOEP has no means of obtaining data from the generals. Given its special status
in the Chinese polity, the PLA has been able to get away with not giving
nervous residents of Sichuan and nearby provinces the real picture about the
potential hazard of weapons and nuclear materials lodged under the rubble. All
that the generals have revealed is that military manufacturers suffered a loss
of 67 billion yuan (US$9.7 billion) in the course of the disaster.
As for the rescue-and-relief operation itself, the PLA at least initially
received high marks for rapidly deploying up to 140,000 personnel to the scene.
This stood in sharp contrast to the generals' cavalier attitude during the
first phase of the SARS crisis of 2003 as well as the severe snowstorms early
this year in southern China. And the official media were full of high praise
for courageous heroes among the tens of thousands of soldiers risking their
lives in the quake zone.
Sichuan residents and even PLA officers on the ground, however, have complained
about the fact that the military seems ill-equipped to handle relief efforts of
this magnitude. Hardware such as helicopters and transport planes are
relatively old, and the skills of paratroopers and other key personnel have
been found wanting.
Commander Liu Pu, who is responsible for Qingchuan county, told Hong Kong
newspapers that he was unable to secure the service of helicopters, as a result
of which his soldiers had to physically carry food and water to remote
villages. Liu also groused that many relief goods had been air-dropped in the
At least in the most critical first week after the quake - when seriously
injured victims had the best chances of survival on rescue - Chinese
helicopters were unable to land in the hillier regions or in counties closest
to the epicenter. Such lapses have led to questions about how the PLA, which
has been enjoying annual budget boosts of more than 15% the past decade, is
using its immense resources. This is particularly apropos in view of the fact
that, while justifying the PLA's disproportionately large share of the economic
pie, Hu has reiterated that a strong army is the best "guarantor" for economic
progress as well as the welfare and safety of the people.
More significantly for China's long-term future, the aura of relative
liberalization - particularly regarding the media - that won the country much
praise the first fortnight after the quake has pretty much petered out. Papers
and websites have received stern party orders to focus on "positive news" such
as edicts from Politburo members and acts of bravery by relief workers.
Web postings that call into doubt the integrity or performance of the party and
government, including questions about tofu constructions, are routinely deleted
as soon as they have appeared. Overseas human-rights organizations have
reported that a professor at Nanjing Normal University, Guo Quan, and two
editors of the popular Niubo website, Du Qiao and Huang Bin, have been subject
to investigation and harassment by state-security personnel in relation for
politically incorrect stories about the quake.
Since the rash of anti-Beijing protests by Tibetans in March, as well as
horrendous outbursts of xenophobia by so-called "angry young people" against
Western politicians who threatened to boycott the Summer Olympic Games in
August, the Hu-Wen leadership has again put their priority on upholding
socio-political stability - and the party's control over most aspects of
Most, if not all, of the problems exposed by the quake, including endemic
corruption, cannot be rectified within a short time. And even as the anger of
parents of the victims of tofu projects is escalating, the possibility that the
CCP leadership may beef up iron-fisted tactics against critics of the regime is
After all, with the Olympics just weeks away - and with speculation mounting
about the possibility of quasi-terrorist attacks by underground extremist
Uyghur and Tibetan groups - the CCP needs to project firmness and authority.
The Hu-Wen leadership's recentralization of power in the wake of the Tibetan
riots and the Sichuan quake has made it even less likely that the
much-anticipated Olympics will herald a kind of "Beijing spring" in the Middle