In my book talks and interviews, I’ve often used the Communist Party’s response to the Sichuan earthquake as an example of why it has been able to stay in power. Now there’s a new twist in the story.
The government’s initial response to the earthquake was to order journalists not to cover it — but journalists across the country ignored the edict, rushed to Sichuan and provided moving coverage of the disaster. This coverage improved the government’s response — information reached Beijing faster and there was more pressure on officials to act quickly. Just as important, the coverage cast the party’s top leaders in a favorable light, especially Premier Wen Jiabao, who was shown clambering over rubble, tearfully comforting children and issuing impromptu orders to soldiers.
The journalists challenged the party, and the party was forced to retreat. But by retreating, the party unwittingly strengthened its hold on power. That’s because a more open and more democratic government is usually a more effective government. The result is something of a paradox — society is gaining greater freedom but the one-party state is also getting stronger. It’s a pattern that we see again and again in the stories in Out of Mao’s Shadow.
But there’s a final piece to this. If the party retreats too far, it could quickly find itself on a slippery slope to democratization. If it wants to stay in power, it needs to draw a line somewhere. The trick is knowing when to retreat and knowing when to stand firm. It’s a balancing act that the party has excelled at over the years, often unintentionally.
Which leads us to the latest news from Sichuan. Huang Qi, a local human rights activist and Webmaster, has been arrested after trying to help parents of children killed in the earthquake when their schools collapsed. Huang had just posted an article on his Internet site describing parents’ demands for compensation and a criminal investigation into allegations of shoddy school construction due to official corruption.
Public anger over party corruption runs deep, and the death toll among schoolchildren in Sichuan is a potentially explosive issue. In many areas, schools fell even as other buildings remained standing. No one knows how many of the 70,000 people killed in the May 12 earthquake were children, but the government has estimated that some 7,000 classrooms collapsed. Many of the journalists who rushed to cover the earthquake began investigating the issue, and for a while, an outraged public railed against local officials in Internet forums and chatrooms.
But now the party has decided to draw the line. The censors have forced the media to abandon the story and shut down discussion of the subject on the Web. And Huang has been silenced too.
Will the parents give up their demands now? After retreating at the right moment, has the party picked the right time to stand firm? So far, it looks like the answer is yes.