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CHINA: Bowing in Grief, to Public Demand

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, May 20 2008 (IPS) - The national mourning observed this week for victims of the Sichuan earthquake is the first public remembrance in modern China’s history ordered to commemorate ordinary people rather than political leaders.

At 2:28 on Monday afternoon, exactly a week after the quake hit the remote hillsides of southwestern China, the country came to a standstill, mourning the 50,000 people estimated to have perished in the tragedy.

Flags flew at half-mast, air-raid sirens wailed and motorists blew their horns in a deafening crescendo. The last time the country observed such an official mourning ritual, silencing all music and closing all entertainment venues was after the death of communist China’s founding father, Mao Zedong, in 1976.

If China felt divided and isolated then, mourning its dead paramount leader who had inflicted years of famine and chaos on the nation, it seems united now in grieving for the quake victims. In the aftermath of the quake when every day brought news of mounting death toll, the need for shared grief, for a shared moment to bid farewell to the departed had grown too.

Bloggers had called for a collective expression of mourning two days after the May 12 quake. On several websites there were calls for the national flag to be lowered and for the Olympic torch relay to be suspended. In the face of so much death, the ostentatious scenes of carnival-like processions accompanying the torch’s relay in China were offensive to many."Let us show some humanity," is how one blogger defined the public’s need for solemnity.

Bowing to public calls, the government has now declared three days of official mourning, closing cinemas and karaoke clubs, cancelling entertainment shows on TV and ordering all state newspapers to publish editions in black.

For many what is happening these days, as the leadership displays a rare affinity to listen to what the public wants, is truly a novelty.

"They (the leaders) showed that they can hear us and take a cue," says elderly Zhang Ruixiang as she observes her granddaughter play in the park. "For ordinary people like us there is not much one can do but show solidarity with the survivors and they have allowed us to do it. I feel grateful".

Inadvertently or not the government has managed to skillfully exploit the disaster to shore up public support and burnish its reputation.

"The outside world has had a chance to see a truly admirable side of the Chinese nation – the courage of a grand nation," is how Zhang Guoqing, international relations scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, appraises the international reverberations to China’s quake.

At home though, the test has only now begun. Even as the mourning seems to have put pressing questions of responsibility on hold, concerns have been raised publicly about the staggering numbers of children and youngsters that perished.

Allowing the TV to report live from the scene of the disaster and letting voices of survivors be heard all over the country, the government has been unable to disguise the fact that schools and hospitals were among the first buildings that gave in to the destructive force of the quake.

In Mianyang city alone, seven schools collapsed, burying 1,700 people. Another 700 students were buried in the nearby town of Hanwang when their school building crumbled.

Altogether, 6,898 school buildings have been destroyed by the quake, according to Han Jin, head of the development and planning department of the Ministry of Education. The implications of the destruction look so grave that Yunnan province, which borders quake-hit Sichuan, has ordered the demolition of all school buildings considered unstable.

The government has promised full investigation once the rescue work is completed. "If quality problems do exist in the school buildings, those found responsible will be dealt with severely," Jiang Weixin, a top housing official threatened at a press conference over the weekend.

Former Prime Minister Zhu Rongji – well-known for his acerbic language and blunt rhetoric – once famously described buildings in the Chinese countryside as "doufuzha" (bean curd residue) projects. He was hitting at the well-known but never uprooted corruption where developers work hand-in-glove with local officials to flout safety codes for their own enrichment.

While the authorities have managed to organise what president Hu Jintao called an "all out" rescue effort, the future days present an even bigger test for the leadership when Beijing starts to look for answers to what part of the disaster was man-made.

For one, the extensive coverage of the earthquake has also revealed that, apart from children and youngsters, a large number of victims were migrant labourers, living in hamlets and shacks that caved in when the quake struck.

That element of public distress was evident from the letters received by newspapers from readers asking the media to cover the plight of ordinary people rather than the acts of state leaders. "At times of natural disasters the role of national leaders is irreplaceable," said one letter sent to the Southern Weekend, "but in the face of such great tragedy we must connect more with the people in suffering".

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