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The Earthquake, the Webmaster and the State

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.

Read about Huang Qi’s arrest here, here and here. There’s more on the public’s reaction to shoddy school construction here, here and here.

1 Response to “The Earthquake, the Webmaster and the State”

  1. 1 Ju Hua

    Hi Mr. Pan,
    I believe that the “greater freedom” you speak of in the third paragraph is specifically economic in nature, rather than political. As you mention in your book, “Out of Mao’s Shadow,” the millions of Chinese who have been lifted out of poverty by an authoritarian communist government with capitalist intentions are the least likely or willing to challenge their government on basic human and political rights. The one-party state gets stronger because it provides economic stability–a defining factor that can make or break a government. After all, the earliest beginnings of the French Revolution consisted of ballooning bread prices! And what is more symbolic of the government’s attempt to crush unrest than its offer of hush money to the parents of earthquake victims? While it is true that most parents initially refused the money, the last opponents of this scandal to censor the parents had their leverage significantly lessened when the rest of their counterparts accepted the government’s offer.
    Mr. Pan, thank you for writing “Out of Mao’s Shadow.” Your book touched me deeply, and I cried myself to sleep for two nights thinking about the individuals whose wonderful lives you briefly chronicled. I am in awe of their bravery and courage in the face of such insurmountable odds–especially that of Chen Guang Cheng’s. The imminent Beijing 2008 Olympics is a bittersweet moment for China–whose desire to be recognized as a glorious nation has been compromised by its shoddy human rights record and political repressiveness. However, an article today in the NYTimes today pointed out that a nation has always been irrevocably changed (politically) after its role as a international host on the world stage. Hopefully, this will be true of China as well. One doesn’t have to hope with naivete, however, when one realizes the audacity of certain individuals in China who are willing to sacrifice their reputation, careers, and even lives for the sake of their nation.

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