Wednesday, May 14, 2008

China acts swiftly to coordinate rescue in Sichuan Province

By China Watcher

So far, the Chinese government handlings of the earthquake rescue efforts were nothing but amazing. This is remarkable for a country, with a traditional custom of not being able to be truthful and slow in dispensing bad news, which had actually moved quite fast in mobilizing rescue and relief effort to the earthquake stricken areas in Sichuan.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was on a plane within hours on news of the earthquake that has hit south western China. On the plane, he was seen directing rescue effort to try to save lives and coordinating plans to bring relief promptly to the affected people. He has been seen constantly on CCTV, with a grim-faced posture, comforting the injured and assuring the victims that search and rescue efforts are being made to the other members of their families. He gave the assurance that rescuing lives is the top priority of the central government. I think Mr. Wen appears really concern about the sufferings of these people and his sincerity has my fullest support compared to the artificial smiles of sympathy coming from some leaders during a tragedy.

It was also a delighting sight to behold when thousands of soldiers and police were dispatched aggressively to the quake zones to perform rescue work. Some were seen disappointed because they could not find the equipments available to move the heavy boulders and cement slabs brought down by the quake in its quest to rescue victims trapped underneath. Emergency medical teams were also mobilized from the coastal big cities to the quake areas as seen on the tube.

Heavy rains, severed communications, and blocked roads have hampered rescue efforts. The overall death toll from this earthquake – with tremors reaching as far away as Pakistan, Vietnam and Thailand – is expected to hit at least 20,000 based on the latest reports coming from military teams parachuted into the heart of the disaster zone that was previously cut off. Planes and helicopters were also used to air-dropped emergency supplies to inaccessible areas.

According to Xue Lan, a professor of public administration at the prestigious, Beijing’s Tsinghua University, the Chinese government has learned from past mistakes, especially over the slow response of the blizzards that struck Southern China in January this year, at managing natural calamities and has built an efficient disaster relief and rescue structure. The structure comprises a network of emergency management offices that emphasizes on the saving of lives to try to offset the high number of deaths in the event of a major natural disaster. Under category 1 disaster as it is called for this earthquake, the local officials are given the authority to bypass provincial chain of command and report directly to federal level to hasten relief effort.

The enactment of a special law on emergency management last year, setting out the government's officials responsibilities and another one in the dissemination of information to the news media promptly during natural disasters have created a somewhat “openness” in news reporting in China. The vigor of the state media in updating the news on the quake is a significant improvement and I believe the Olympics have to a certain degree played a part in this “openness”. Coverage of the earthquake seemed unrestricted and scores of foreign reporters were able to broadcast live from the quake zones. Who said the Olympics have no effects on the creation of a more open society? Obviously, I do not expect China to adopt the “open society” associated with a Western styled democracy, but China will change gradually and it will do so at its own pace and on the wishes of the majority of its people and, definitely not from the many demands of the foreign activists or Western governments.

Another point I noted from this incident was the scaling back of the domestic leg of the Olympic torch relay after there were numerous calls from the Chinese netizens that the celebrated event in another province will be seen to be insensitive to the plight of the victims of the quake. This decision to tone down the celebration is an encouraging sign that the officials are willing to listen and they are not deaf to public sentiment – another first in the Chinese government under one-party rule.

Being more open and frank in dealing with issues and tragedies are important accountability attributes which will help to garner respect of its people and thus, will additionally prove that China can also deliver on services aside from growth regardless of the type of political leanings in its administration.

The Chinese government has certainly lived up to its “openness” and responsiveness in times of disaster and I hope that this will set the trend and adoption of more internationally accepted reforms, however, slow it is, as China begin to transverse its journey towards becoming a more developed and advanced society in the future.

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