Guardian - Sunday May 18 2008
Will Hutton The Observer
Earthquake's don't destroy strong, well-built buildings, they destroy weak ones. As China reels from its biggest earthquake in 30 years, public anger is mounting. A third of the 20,069 confirmed dead (the number is expected to rise to 50,000) were children trapped in the 6,900 classrooms that the government says were destroyed - weaker than other buildings in withstanding the shock. It has also said that as many as 390 dams could be at risk.
The danger for the Communist government is obvious. China is earthquake prone, Sichuan in particular experiencing a similar scale earthquake in 1933. China's geologists had warned there was a one-in-10 chance of a recurrence within 50 years and buildings and dams should have been built to strict regulatory standards. They weren't, especially those built most recently. This is not just corner cutting in the quest for fast growth, or the kind of loose practice that comes to light after disasters everywhere. It is the consequence of systemic non-enforcement of regulations in return for bribes - and everyone in China knows it.
The heartbreaking scenes have transfixed China and the world. Popular revulsion at avoidable deaths, especially when so many are children, could easily become overwhelming. China has been applauded for its fast and open reaction compared to the Burmese generals' stubborn refusal to mobilise domestic and international support in the aftermath of the cyclone - but self-preservation as much as humanitarian concern is driving the Communist party's actions.
After all, it has not been a good year. Inflation is at a 12-year high, the rail system is breaking down during snow storms and then there is Tibet. And now this. State Premier Wen Jiabao went to the disaster area the following day to make his concern visible, shouting to survivors that help was at hand and ordering action. 'Grandpa' Wen has become something of a national hero.
President Hu Jintao followed him on Friday. But both needed to show from the beginning that whatever the shortcomings of local officials, the Beijing leadership, as it always likes to position itself, was on ordinary villagers' side.
The comments from local people showed how much it is needed. One mother told the Guardian: 'Chinese officials are too corrupt and bad ... They have money for prostitutes and second wives but they don't have money for our children.' It is the same story when it comes to food safety, drug standards or environmental regulations, of which only 10 per cent are enforced. Corruption is ubiquitous, which is why so many buildings were deathtraps. Another woman drew attention to the government and party buildings that remained standing, plainly built to the right specifications. The Politburo could anticipate what was going to be said; fast, open and effective action was its best riposte.
The government has announced an investigation into why so many classrooms collapsed, but the answer is already known. People want the government to maintain the pace of development but increasingly do not accept that the price has to be corruption. The government agrees and launches unsuccessful anti-corruption drives. The problem is that local officials have unchecked, unaccountable power and have no compunction, given the loss of the belief that they are building a communist utopia, in helping themselves to cash on an ever grander scale. Professor Hu Angang, an economist at Tsinghua university, estimates that one yuan in six is, in effect, corrupt. Even army officers buy their rank.
This comes back to the weakness of China's civil society; it is not just that the courts and police are rigged, but there are few strong self-help groups and associations to hold officials to account. This lack is more obvious than ever during a disaster. Organisations like the Red Cross, Salvation Army, groups of amateur radio hams, churches, sports clubs, associations for the relief of the poor, missing persons groups, independent hospitals and all the others who might help are conspicuous by their absence. If they do exist they are tightly controlled and monitored by the party.
The state and the party are all there are, and at times like these they are very exposed. Party ideologists like to criticise democracy for its inefficiency, but vehicles where dissent can be openly expressed are a vital safety valve and a way of improving government effectiveness. The US government's reaction to Hurricane Katrina was cruelly inadequate, but there were avenues and mechanisms for the US's dense network of outraged institutions in civil society to propose fundamental change for next time. Complex societies need active civil society institutions to help manage them. China is the weaker for their absence - and for a system through which they can express themselves.
In effect, the one party state is on trial. So far it has hardly put a foot wrong. The contrast both with Burma and with China's last big earthquake in 1976 could hardly be more marked. But importantly it had no choice.
The party's first instinct was to try to prevent massive media coverage, but to refuse China's now enormous domestic media - and international news organisations - the opportunity to report a humanitarian disaster months away from the Olympics would have been political suicide. Even more important, as China gets richer and more wired, the government finds itself having to be more responsive to public opinion. Whatever its impressive reaction to date, Chinese people are suspending judgment. So far so good. But will corruption dog the relief effort? And will anything ever change, whatever government inquiries may find, as long as the state remains controlled by one party and civil society is kept weak?
China is at a crossroads. The pressures on the one party state are becoming immense - and one obvious response is to harness China's passionate nationalist sense of injustice to its cause, as it has over Tibet, and to become a nationalist authoritarian state. But Sichuan shows other forces at work: the widespread resentment at corruption; the demand to hold the government to account and the growing capacity to do so. The rest of Asia is finding its way to democracy, and refuseniks like Burma are pariahs. China, I am sure, will one day find its way to democracy too - and events last week will prove one more small part of the story.
The Writing on the Wall, Will Hutton's book on China, is published by Little, Brown at £9.99.