Disaster Redux

I hadn’t planned it; just came up with the idea when my student was introducing herself to the class.

Of course, I hadn’t planned to land in Shanghai on the same day as the largest natural disaster to hit so-called New China since its founding in 1949 either.  I’ve been here about a week and China is officially in mourning.  On Monday the entire country observed three minutes of silence, starting at 2:28pm, exactly a week after the quake began. This is the first time that “ordinary citizens” have ever been so honored in China, the television explained.

Tens of thousands are dead and missing.

I’m here to teach an Introduction to Fiction course, which is not the kind of seemingly impractical course many of these students, most of them business majors or future English teachers, would probably choose on their own.  The students in my class plan to study in the United States at some point and they know that, in our Liberal Arts tradition, this is just the kind of course they will be required to take.  Still, they are here not for the short stories, I suspect, but the English practice and to try and learn some strategies for dealing with American classrooms, which is good enough for me.

On the second day of class I asked them to write down their “American” name next to their undecipherable—to me—Chinese name. They all have them, and seem happy to use them.   They know from much experience with “wàiguó rén” (foreigners) that, because tones in Chinese are as important to word meaning as are consonant and vowel sounds, my untutored American mouth will not be able to pronounce their Chinese names.  The last time I was in China, I played a game with a fellow traveler, a native of Guangzhou.  She would pronounce a word in Chinese and I would repeat it back to her.  I would always say it exactly as I heard it and she would always laugh and say that I was changing the tone and thus the meaning.  I could never get it.  Thus, the “American names.”  In my class they range from Lynn, Michelle, and Tom to Cherry, Miguel, and Sky.  It is great fun to ask them why they chose their name as not all of them come from Desperate Housewives, which is a reason I have already heard more than once.

So when Lily stood up—they always stand when speaking to the class—to state her name and tell the class one “interesting” thing about herself, she explained that she had been working with the Chinese Red Cross (why the Chinese Red Cross uses a cross is lost on me) to collect donations for the victims of the recent 8.0 earthquake in Sichuan province (the severity was just updated on Monday by Chinese seismologists).  As I concentrated on what she was saying—she was speaking softly and in heavily accented English—I decided I needed to donate some money.  It suddenly didn’t seem right to just swoop in (literally, for I landed a few hours after the quake), teach some English for pay and leave, I thought.

I asked Lily:  “If I give you some money for the earthquake victims, could you get it to the Red Cross?”  “Yes.”  “If I give it to you now?”  “Yes.”  I made a big flourish of taking out my wallet, opening it up and removing a 100 RMB note (a little over $14) and giving it to her.
I immediately regretted the public-ness of my action.  I felt like a big, imperialist idiot.

And then the entire class started applauding.  Earnestly.  As far as I could tell; and trust me, I did try to tell.  Which didn’t help my sense of embarrassment.  It was such a little thing, of no consequence, I thought, to the larger picture.  But they were applauding.  Regardless of the awkward moment (for me) we had formed a bond on only the second day.  I knew then that the class was going to go just fine.

Whether in class or out, I could not escape the earthquake.  News of it or references to it were everywhere.  On the street corner some girl scout-types were collecting relief money.  Images of destroyed buildings were on the TV in the hotel elevator.  Everyone, Chinese and “wàiguó rén,” talked about it.  Prayers were said and glasses raised to the victims at dinners.  Flags were at half staff.

The TV has had almost non-stop coverage.  I have tried to avoid seeing any American responses to the earthquake because I was immediately captivated by CCTV 9, the Chinese produced, English language news and culture television station.  Just about the only American response I have seen have been the headlines on yahoo.com when I go to open e-mail.  Immediately obvious was a vast difference in the reporting of the death toll.  The numbers at yahoo always reported the dead at a much higher number than what I saw on CCTV, though these numbers seem to be almost in balance a week after the temblor.

Having been captivated by all the propaganda, silly yet dangerous paeans to patriotism, and censorship on American TV after 9/11, I immediately saw similarities.  And differences.  Granted, the disasters are very, very different, but the reactions to them were not completely so and I was fascinated.

CCTV has been frank if conservative (compared to yahoo’s numbers anyway) about reporting on the death toll specifically and the earthquake in general, it seems to me.  I remember a few years ago when SARS broke out here.  There was denial after denial which, I understand, led to even more deaths because of a delay in an official response.  Yes, there is certainly a difference in the nature of the disasters, one natural, one brought on by inadequate food production.  But I bet that there might also be some question here as to the “naturalness” of this death toll.  Having lived through the 6.6 quake in Los Angeles, I suspect that building standards are in part to blame for the death toll.

I have not seen a single story on CCTV about this yet.   And though I have not watched their “special, continuous” coverage I have watched a lot since I landed on Monday night, the same day the Wenchuan County quake rocked Sichuan province and all of China.

When I finally got to my hotel room that night after being awake for some 36 hours, exhausted and grateful to have arrived safely, I first heard about the disaster.  It was all over the news, on multiple channels, though I could understand only one, CCTV.  I felt so lonely in my hotel room, out of touch with everyone back home, most of whom would have already known about the quake for half a day, some of whom would be worrying about me.  I was cut off not just from loved ones, but all my normal means of gathering information.  How could it be that in this day and age of communication I would not learn of such a disaster until half a day after it happened?  And why did this initial lack of knowledge more than the event itself leave me more discombobulated than anything else?

As I watched the coverage of the unfolding tragedy, I realized why.  In many ways, I was psychologically right back at 9/11.  And/or the ’94 LA quake.  The two days in my life that have most combined tragedy with public spectacle.  But now I am in a foreign country and am isolated from friends and family.

I have only Chinese television to provide me with information.  So I watched.  And watched.

Within days, even hours, of the 9/11 attacks, the television news felt an obligation to tell us how to feel, using a combination of sappy and tragic images set to a combination of somber and patriotic music.  Only able to show the Towers falling so many times, but aware the nation was till glued to the set, aghast and angry, television producers decided that they story itself was not enough and that they needed to be an active participant in shaping our understanding of the growing narrative.  Some images would be censored soon enough (bodies falling from the Towers; President Bush, dumbstruck and passive in the classroom) and others would be triumphed (the bloodless Towers falling, interviews of dusty people fleeing Lower Manhattan, emergency workers in action, candlelight vigils).

On CCTV the montages have already started, guiding my reaction to the event.  Indisputably, the Sichuan quake is almost nothing but tragedy.  But like 9/11 there are always questions to be asked.  And while I make no guesses as to what should be asked here in China, I remember how much devastation was caused in an America traumatized by the attacks yet unable to ask probing questions about why it had happened.  Unable to ask for fear of being labeled one of “them” and being rejected as one of “us.”  Of course, Bush is still marking such divisions, as he did in the Knesset last week, but after a long, painful national process of many years, only his most faithful supporters still listen to him without a sense of amused horror.  Many have conveniently forgotten the demands for unquestioning fealty that came immediately after 9/11
Instead of commercials during its quake coverage, CCTV shows scenes from the devastation set to music.  Here, the soundtrack has children singing, mournfully.  There, classical music seemingly stolen from a generic American Hollywood epic, both rousing and self-reflective.  But the scenes are not random, of course.  They are mostly comprised of emergency personnel removing people from rubble and taking them away in stretchers.  Army troops on the move and building bridges Politicians meeting with people.

Maybe while people may still be alive in the rubble, it is too early to ask how the rapid expansion of China has played a part in the death toll.  After all, in America we still have not had a comprehensive, independent investigation into 9/11, preferring instead to just ignore many of the questions from that day, as the “official” 9/11 commission did.  Perhaps we remain too uncomfortable to look at ourselves and see what we might have done differently before, during and afterwards.  Such an examination would be something that, as Bush likes to call them, “revisionist historians,” and thus not truthtellers, would do.  And so we remain stuck.   Hopefully that doesn’t happen here.

Discussing the earthquake coverage on television with my American breakfast companions (I didn’t explain that I was writing this piece for Counterpunch), we all found the coverage fascinating.  We all know what American TV looks like in disasters or pseudo-disasters, but it is always interesting to see news through the eyes of other countries.  There was general consent that the coverage, in the end, was of one mind: to portray the government as doing the best job possible.  Missing from the coverage (missing, here meaning no more than that it was different from the American TV coverage we were all used to) was any interviewing of those personally affected by the quake.  Again, there may be some (none of us were watching CCTV 24/7, but we have all watched a lot of it, including many updates that give the “latest” as to the situation) but we hadn’t seen it.

Instead of interviews of emergency personnel on the ground or of survivors, the interviews are all of high-ranking government officials or from reporters in the field, either on phone or camera.  There seems to be three main fronts for CCTV’s coverage:  interviews and comments from government officials; reporting and commentary from both reporter in the field and anchor in the newsroom; and serene discussion programs, usually with three experts, both Chinese and not.

CCTV has even has even televised a moment similar to Bush on his Ground Zero pile of rubble, bullhorn in hand, telling the workers that very soon the world would watch as we visited those who had knocked down these buildings.  It was Bush’s finest, and perhaps only, real moment of glory.  It was why all those people who thought he would be better to drink a beer with than Gore elected him in the first place.    Little did we know at the time that Iraq was already on the table.  He snookered us all

On CCTV, this moment was courtesy of the initial front man for the central government response, Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, who was, I have heard repeatedly, on the ground in Sichuan Province within hours of the quake.  In comparison, Chinese President Hu Jintao waited until Friday to fly to the region.

Wen Jiabao has been on TV a lot.  From a desk in his wood-paneled government jet en route to Sichuan, he said (all my quotes are courtesy of CCTV translations) that “success depends on the efforts of the entire country.”  Standing on a pile of rubble and speaking through a bullhorn, he told emergency workers that “The party and the government need you and thank you.  At this difficult time you should have no fear of hard times or sacrifice.”  He also told the aid workers that to the victims they represented the government and are like family.  They offer help and must act accordingly.  Wen Jiabao also promised that China would rebuild Sichuan better than ever.  I had seen all of this before.  Images of Bush after Katrina rattled about my brain.

As in America during disasters, the newscasters here have commented widely on the efforts of government officials, becoming not just reporters or information readers but interpreters of that information.   “Wherever he goes,” one anchor said, referring to a just-concluded story on Wen Jiabao’s efforts, “the message is the same; lives is [sic] the top priority.”  Wen Jiabao has “boosted the morale” of the whole nation, said another.  One reporter talked about a conversation he had had in the field with an emergency worker.  The reporter had asked why was he working so hard in such difficult conditions?  The emergency worker had replied that if Wen Jiabao could work so hard, and he a septuagenarian at that, then certainly it was his duty to work hard and to help people.

At a press conference before a group of seismologists, Wen Jiabao said that seismologists must work harder to predict earthquakes in the future and to better prepare the country to deal with them.  When he said about reporters that they have proven “trustworthy” and “professional” in their reporting, I wondered if he meant in a similar way to reporters “embedded” with soldiers in Iraq, who reported more or less what the Pentagon wanted them to report.

When Hu Jintao was in the area, he commanded workers to work harder and to not give up.  After a briefing, the TV announced on Sunday, Hu Jintao ordered more food and supplies to remote villages.  Saving lives, preventing diseases, treating the wounded and maintaining security are the most important goals, but at the same time, he said, emergency workers can work harder and faster and they must do so.

And though I still have not seen any interviews of victims, reporters have commented on such meetings.  When an anchor asked how the people were coping with such losses, the reporter responded that it was difficult to explain because people were so sad.   And even though she was not a member of their family, the reporter said, she was also crying with the survivors she met.  The reporter Wang Mangmang said that she was reluctant to ask questions of people who had lost so much.  She smoothly continued in the next breath: we shouldn’t forget to mention the “heroic” rescuers who never give up.

Each talk show that I have seen follows the same format.  An anchor has three guests, various experts on whatever the topic of the hour covers.  But the anchor is not there just to ask questions and get answers; like America, he/she is there to provide spin.  In one such show just a couple of days after the quake the back and forth went like this.  How do you judge the relief efforts so far, the inquisitor asked?  “First rate,” came the response.  Within the first hour, the interviewee continued, Wen Jiabao went to Sichuan, an act of swiftness that cannot be matched by other disasters in other countries.  Was he referring to Bush on 9/11 or Bush saying “Heckuva job Brownie,” right after Katrina?  The interviewee’s conclusion:  “very efficient.”

Continuing the conversation, the anchor’s response to this argument was to say that there had been a great deal of “wisdom” and “pragmatism” shown in the initial response from the government and its representatives.  The interviewee’s response:  “Very true.”

The news coverage certainly has been pragmatic, in a wholly unemotional way that Americans are not used to.  One talk show I saw had an expert discussing the end of the “golden period,” that time past which most survivors buried under rubble would not survive.  During that interview, we were entering the 92nd hour after the quake, the golden period ending around the 72nd hour.  But he also explained—and this continues to be the message from government officials a week after the quake—that even if the survival rate was 10-15% after the golden period this was still a LOT of people.  The search must go on, he said.  From Hu Jintao on down, this has been the dominant message.

Some reflection has indeed begun.  On another interview program I watched on Sunday (a rebroadcast; I’m not sure when it first aired), the subject was “China Opens to International Aid. “  Joerg Wuttke, President of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China, was asked about the lessons to be learned from such disasters.  He said that the most important thing was to let the world know about any such disaster immediately and to let reporters and aid workers gain access to the affected area.  Access generates both sympathy and aid in its many forms.

On the same segment, Denis de Besset, Vice President of the French Chamber of Commerce in China, said that efficient use of funds from both Chinese and foreign companies is of prime importance.  Within minutes, he said, employees of all companies in Sichuan—French, European and Chinese—were ready to help.  The response, he said, was and continues to be “extraordinary.”  (Although one news report listing business responses claimed that China Mobile had donated 40 phones.  40 phones!)

At a press conference, I heard Wen Jiabao say that the government had not “neglected” Sichuan Province, which seemed to be a nod to potential criticisms of building collapses, but I was unsure of the context.  Another government representative, a housing minister, said that houses were built to sustain a 7.0 temblor, but at the epicenter the shaking was “10 or 11.”

While we Americans are clubbed over the head with TV news calls to patriotism—Fox News still employs the waving flag with everything it does—here the coverage is dispassionate, even-tempered, sober in a way our coverage is not.  There are no fancy slogans or striking music to mark the event, just quiet, if controlled, reflection.

And the coverage is extensive.  But open access and discussion bring other things: scrutiny.  And scrutiny can be dangerous for those in power if they have something to hide.  This is probably why Bush and Cheney have still not testified openly about what they knew and when they knew what they knew concerning 9/11, details which they owe America.  This is also why, given China’s track record, for this one event anyway, the signs look good.  In part, the response to the earthquake might be tied to the coincidental timing of two other major events.   China clearly wants to avoid the PR nightmare that the country formerly known as Burma brought on itself (not that the ruling junta cares) by denying aid and rejecting access after the recent cyclone (a friend tells me The Economist has already written of this).  Also, because of next month’s Beijing Olympics, all eyes were already on China.  Ironically, the same torch relays that were so important to the Chinese government in the rest of the world and before the quake were, here at home, at first scaled back and then temporarily canceled in memory of the quake victims.

NOTE: Though I have never made such a public plea, if you haven’t yet done so, I urge you to send money to the American Red Cross, earmarking it for the earthquake in China.  I know that both Lily and I will be grateful if you do this.  Any commentary on governmental and/or media reactions to such disasters matters little, if at all, to those doing the actual suffering.

JEFF BIRKENSTEIN is a professor of English at St. Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. He can be reached at: jbirkenstein@stmartin.edu