AT 2.28pm on May 12, China suffered its worst earthquake since the founding of the People’s Republic 59 years ago. The massive tremor measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale devastated a swathe of central Sichuan province with the epicentre perilously close to the provincial capital Chengdu. Whole towns were reduced to rubble, schools collapsed, five million people were made homeless and now in the aftermath, what remains of population centres in the region are under threat of submersion by the rising waters of lakes formed by rivers truncated by landslides. On June 1, three weeks after the quake, some 69,000 people were reported dead, 368,000 injured and 18,000 still missing.
The way a nation or government responds to disaster, especially one of such unimaginable magnitude is a good indication of character and capability; the legendary resilience of the Chinese temperament has been proven true.
For those who have closely followed the event, the strength, spirit and solidarity of the Chinese people in the face of massive devastation as well as the discipline and dedication of the armed forces are nothing short of impressive. In the quake zone itself, tales emerged of incredible altruism – teachers who sacrificed their lives to save students; a farmer who had just lost his only son, yet worked tirelessly to rescue the children of others; a policewoman who nursed an orphaned baby.
In Fujian last week, as I am sure is the case in every part of China, the “Wenchuan Earthquake” cropped up frequently in conversation.
One of my regular taxi drivers is an ex-People’s Liberation Army soldier from a township near my grandfather’s village. After picking me up at Xiamen airport, he could hardly wait to tell me about the selfless courage of the army rescuers.
When I expressed concern over the 200 rescuers who had been buried in a landslide, he assured me their families would be looked after by the government as they would be designated heroes who had died in the course of duty. He said all taxis pulled off the road to participate in the nationwide three minutes of silence on May 19, exactly a week after the quake. He had already donated 2,000 yuan (RM930) to the relief effort and would give more as soon as he had the funds.
Meanwhile, a coach full of determined-looking men from a Fujian construction company passed us on the expressway. Large red banners on the vehicle’s front and sides announced they were on their way to help in the quake zone.
Another taxi operator, a Mr. Chen of Fuqing city, who one day drove me to Fuzhou said: “When our country is faced with difficulties it is naturally our duty as Chinese citizens to do what we can”. He too had donated over 2,000 yuan and intended to give more. I asked if others in Fuqing were as supportive to which he replied: “Almost every family would have given something.”
Certainly this is also true of the schools, including the one in my grandfather’s village. The headmaster told me that after the three-minute silence, students and teachers pooled together about 10,000 yuan (RM4,650) for the relief fund, with many of the children dropping their pocket money into the box. Such aid would be channelled through the Fuqing charity association or alternatively, through designated banks, which issue receipts for contributions.
In Fuqing city, a streamer at the post office declared that no fees would be charged for remittances for quake assistance, while a local hospital offered the chance to win a free gynaecological examination with every 10 yuan (RM4.65) donation. A sign at a local store advertised a special for customers whereby a minimum stored value of 50 yuan (RM23) in their handphones would be converted to 70 yuan (RM32.50) worth of talk time if they gave 1 yuan (50 sen) to the relief fund. The poster urged customers with the reminder, “We have a responsibility to support the disaster zone!”
In the wake of the earthquake, after the initial shock and grief, some angry parents are now demanding an answer for the schools that collapsed. Besides the daunting task of reconstructing whole towns and innumerable new housing units, there will also surely be many questions to be answered. And as some have pointed out in hindsight, earthquake and other disaster measures and procedures will need to be established to minimise the impact of future catastrophes.
However, any other nation in a similar situation can learn from the orderly behaviour of the hundreds of thousands of tent-dwelling victims and their spirit of mutual self-help in the face of loss, as well as from the confident, active leadership of top levels of government and most of all, from the care and generosity shown by all segments of society.
No wonder a favourite saying in China these days is “Difficulties arise in one place, but help comes from all directions”.
Ziying can be reached at email@example.com.