Days of disaster
May 15th 2008 | BEIJING AND DUJIANGYAN
From The Economist print edition
Two natural disasters; two very different responses. We look first at the government’s response to the earthquake in China, then at poor Myanmar
“DON’T cry, don’t cry. It’s a disaster, and you’ve survived,” China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao, told weeping orphans in a town almost flattened by the country’s worst natural disaster in more than 30 years. Mr Wen’s awkward words may have done little to calm the bereaved children. But amid the huge destruction caused by the earthquake of May 12th, China’s leaders thus far have scored some unusual public-relations successes.
“別哭，別哭，這是一場災難，你們幸存下來了。”中國總理溫家寶在一個幾乎被地震夷為平地的鎮上安慰哭泣的孤兒，中國遭受了近三十年來最為嚴重的自然災 害。溫總理笨拙的語言可能對于安慰這些失去雙親的兒童沒有太大的作用，但是在5月12日這場地震造成的巨大損失中，中國領導人在這次非同尋常的公眾關系處理 上獲得了迄今為止最大的成功。
Hampered by poor weather (at least for the first day or two) and the blocking of mountain roads by landslides, Chinese troops have been struggling to rescue thousands of people buried in rubble and to bring aid to stricken communities across a wide area of the southwest on the edge of the Tibetan plateau. Three days after the disaster, officials put the number of dead at around 20,000, most of them in Sichuan Province north of the provincial capital, Chengdu. With many trapped, the toll could reach 50,000, the government said.
盡管有惡劣天氣（至少是前兩天）和山體塌方造成的道路阻塞，中國軍隊仍然盡力營救埋在廢墟底下的人們以及對西南方青藏高原邊界的受災群眾給予支援。在災難 發生三天後，官方給出的死亡人數在20000左右，絕大多數在四川省會成都的北部地區。政府聲稱，隨著更多傷亡人員的發現，死亡人數可能會達到 50000.
In contrast with neighbouring Myanmar’s lethargic and secretive handling of its cyclone ten days earlier, China responded to the earthquake rapidly and with uncharacteristic openness. Within hours Mr Wen was on a plane, President Hu Jintao was chairing an emergency meeting of the Politburo’s Standing Committee and thousands of soldiers and police were being dispatched. After an initial deployment of 5,000 troops the number was ramped up to 100,000 within three days. The official media, often reticent about reporting bad news, rapidly updated casualty numbers. State-owned television provided non-stop coverage.
與十天前近鄰緬甸處理其強熱帶風暴災難時的遲鈍和遮遮掩掩相比，中國政府的反應非常迅速而且異常開放。在幾個小時內溫家寶總理已經坐上飛機趕往災區，中共 中央總書記，國家主席胡錦濤也立即主持召開了一場緊急的中國中央政治局常委會，數千名士兵和警察已被派赴災區。在首次派遣5000名士兵趕赴災區之後，在 接下來的三天內士兵的總數已經達到100000.通常報喜不報憂的官方媒體，非常迅速地更新傷亡人數。國家電視台提供不間斷新聞報道。
During China’s second-deadliest natural disaster of recent years, flooding along the Yangzi River that killed thousands in 1998, officials barred foreign journalists from some affected areas and failed to update casualty figures for two weeks, before providing suspiciously low numbers. Even this year the government was slow to respond to a snow disaster that affected much of south and central China in January. It expelled foreign journalists from Tibetan-inhabited areas (including the part of Sichuan now worst affected by the earthquake) after an outbreak of anti-Chinese unrest in March.
在中國近些年來第二大致死的自然災害──1998年導致數千人員遇難的長江大水中，官方禁止外國媒體接近一些受災地區而且在提供令人懷疑的很低的傷亡數字 之前兩週未更新傷亡數字。甚至在今年，政府對于一月份影響到中國中南部地區的雪災仍反應遲鈍。而且在三月份西藏動亂爆發後，中國政府也驅趕了藏族聚居區 （其中包括這次受災的四川部分地區）的外國記者。
Of course, covering up was not an option. China measured the earthquake at a magnitude of 7.8, a force so powerful that it sent panicky office workers running into streets as far away as Beijing, 1,500km (930 miles) to the north. But China’s leaders are anxious to repair the public-relations damage they have suffered internationally as a result of the Tibet crisis. And they are keen to avoid the kind of criticism directed at Myanmar.
Foreign reporters have been allowed into affected areas without hindrance by officials. China welcomed foreign aid in the form of material and cash. Japan said it was sending an earthquake team. President Hu discussed the disaster in a telephone conversation with George Bush and thanked him for American offers of help. Amid nationwide shock at the scale of the disaster, a recent upsurge of anti-Western sentiment triggered by events in Tibet appears to be abating.
Since March no Politburo member has publicly visited Tibet. Comforting earthquake victims, however, presents few political risks.
Mr Wen has remained at the scene to direct relief operations. Chinese television showed residents muttering “Thank you, prime minister, thank you,” after he declared to one group that thousands of troops and police had been deployed. Some victims are angry, but their resentment is directed at local officials rather than the central authorities.
In Dujiangyan, a large town about 50km from the epicentre, a woman in her 50s complains that while some buildings collapsed, the government and party headquarters remained intact. “Corruption and supervision of construction work is a problem, a very big problem,” says another resident. “I hope they learn a lesson from this.” Even the state-owned media have said shoddy construction may have exacerbated the impact. Casualties at schools have been high, partly because many were in classrooms when the earthquake struck in the early afternoon, but partly too, parents suspect, because they were badly built.
在距離震中約50公裡的都江堰市，一個約50歲的婦女抱怨到當一些房屋倒塌時，政府和黨委總部的房子卻完好無損。“腐敗和施工監管是個問題，一個很大的問 題”另一個居民說，“我希望他們能從中學到些東西。”甚至國家電視台都說，劣制的建築加劇了地震的傷害程度。學校的傷亡人數很高，部分原因是許多當地震發 生時正是下午早些時候，大部分學生都在教室，還有一部分原因，家長懷疑是學校建築質量太差。
Hundreds of children were buried at Dujiangyan’s Xinjian Elementary School, where a four-storey building collapsed like a pack of cards. One young woman, whose son had been killed at the school, was frantically trying to find out where his body had been taken. At one point she stood in front of an ambulance, sobbing and demanding information. Police came and took her gently aside and told her they would try to find the name of the morgue. Several ambulances plied to and from the site, but the official media have reported the rescue of only 50 or so children. Mr Wen watched two of them being pulled from the rubble and wept at the sight, said one Chinese report.
數百名學生被埋在都江堰興建小學的廢墟下，小學四層教學樓像撲克牌一樣壓在了一起。一位在這個學校遇難孩子的母親發瘋般第要找出她孩子的屍體被移到了哪 裡。在那裡她站在一輛救護車前，哭泣著問著孩子的消息。警察溫和地把她拉到了一邊，告訴她他們會盡力尋找存放孩子遺體的太平間的名字。一些救護車在那裡來來往 往穿梭不息，但官方媒體報道說，只有約50個孩子獲救。中國媒體報道，溫家寶總理看望了兩個從廢墟裡拖出的孩子，不禁流下了眼淚。
The victims’ torch song
Officials are worried about damage to dams upriver from Dujiangyan, closer to the epicentre. Xinhua, a government-controlled news agency, has said Dujiangyan would be “swamped” if the nearby Zipingpu dam were to suffer major problems. Cracks have appeared on the dam’s surface and workshops at the site have collapsed. The dam was completed less than two years ago despite concerns raised at the time about building it so close to a seismic fault line.
The Chinese media note that the government’s decision to allow prompt coverage follows the implementation on May 1st of new rules on “government information transparency”. Under these rules, the authorities are supposed to make public any information involving the “vital interests of citizens”. But political calculations are likely to have played a bigger role than the regulations themselves, which still allow information to be withheld if it relates to “state secrets”—a term applied sweepingly in China.
The Olympic games are a powerful incentive. The authorities rapidly decided to bow to public opinion and scale down the razzmatazz surrounding the parade of the Olympic torch through China in order to reflect the tragedy. Having at first suggested the torch ceremonies would continue as planned (they include a relay close to the disaster area next month), officials now say they will be “simplified” and combined with fund-raising for earthquake relief. A ritual that last month served as a red flag to China’s critics may now be turned to much better use.