Posted by Jeremy Goldkorn on Friday, May 23, 2008 at 1:47 PM
Inside a camp for earthquake victims in Sichuan
This article is by Pete Sweeney, a Fulbright Scholar researching business policy in Chengdu, China.
The image is by Beijing-based photographer Janek Zdzarski who is currently traveling around the earthquake zone
Jiao Na had come a long way to help the people of Sichuan. A Chinese teacher living in Kunming, she had seen the pictures and heard the cries for help. Not content to mail supplies, she contacted a local health bureau in Chengdu and arranged to purchase the supplies they said they needed to prevent a looming medical disaster: medical supplies, mosquito repellent, dry biscuits. She solicited donations from her friends in Kunming, some $700 worth, and booked plane tickets along with several companions.
However, when she got to Chengdu, she was astonished to find that nobody seemed to want the aid they’d requested. She made two stops, one at the Chinese Red Cross, and had her goods turned away for being too small in scale. When she met us at the Sichuan Provincial Hygiene Information Research Center, another collecting point for aid, she was tired of rejections. And yet the center appeared unexcited about her donations. Her receipts were not in order. They didn’t want to deal with foodstuffs or mosquito repellent. They suggested she go deliver it to the distressed regions herself, but the roads are closed to individual volunteers and she has no car anyway. “I don’t understand,” said Jiao Na. “I hear all these people in Sichuan appealing for help. I come up here and nobody wants it. If you don’t want this stuff, why do you ask for it? I just think it’s really weird.” And Jiao Na burst into tears.
Jiao Na had no way to know how poor her timing was. She had arrived in Chengdu just in time for its second wave of earthquake shock, but this time the shock was man-made. After a week of watching images of horror from outlying areas, the citizenry of Chengdu was no longer complacent about aftershocks. On Monday, the city held a “moment of silence” to commemorate the earthquake victims. This moment of silence was not, in fact, silent, but was marked by every air-raid alarm and car horn in the city detonating simultaneously. The effect was cardiac. Monday night the local government followed up by broadcasting a prediction that an “aftershock” between six and seven points in magnitude (as severe as the initial shock) would likely strike the city in the next 24 hours. This time the city panicked. Half of the city’s population, it seemed, leapt into their cars and fled. The main roads leading out of the city were all clogged. The tent cities, previously populated mostly by stubborn holdouts who distrusted the government’s assurances were now rejoined by those who did not have the ability or the inclination to flee. I slept on a sidewalk in front of a bar.
Metaphorically speaking, the first week of the earthquake disaster was like the honeymoon of a longer relationship. First the euphoria of survival and the closeness one feels with those you survived with. Then, as the news began to broadcast images of horror from the surrounding areas, a surge of sympathy and compassion as the population mobilized to help. Granted the tone was marred by a few panics, over the water supply for one. But over all optimism and community feeling prevailed.
But by the time Jiao Na arrived, the aid structure was clogged, charlatans and con men had begun to take advantage of the situation, creating fraudulent donation websites and selling stolen donated supplies like tent materials on the side of the road. According to an employee of a local chamber of commerce, the local business community is also confused and exhausted by the unending appeals for aid from a multitude of just-sprung-to-life aid organizations. China has little experience with NGOs; civil society initiatives are the province of the government. Now there are student groups, foreign aid organizations, individuals, and various government agencies all acting at the same time, but not in concert.
At this point the risk is that burnout will set in. Having dealt with the immediate effects of the crisis, distributed food, medicine, water, temporary shelter, will the Chinese neglect to address the fundamental problems that resulted in so many school buildings collapsing while the government offices stayed upright? Excepting the exploding size of the government bureaucracy (in the Qing dynasty the ratio of officials to peasants was 1:1000, today it is closer to 1:40), China’s rural infrastructure remains poorly developed. Frequently the development of public goods like education and health systems have taken a second seat to factories and office parks . . . or to the blatant corruption documented by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao in their (now banned) survey of China’s peasantry “Will the Boat Sink the Water?”
Chinese citizens like Jiao Na are clearly ready to pitch in, as is the international community, but the effort must be sustained over a greater length of time, targeting longer-term structural problems. The earthquake, as tragic was it was, is an opportunity to build again, and build better. While the earthquake was an unmitigated disaster, it would be a worse disaster to waste the newly mobilized energy of Chinese volunteers.
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