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18-05-08, 03:08
A Communist-Made Disaster
By GORDON CHANG | May 16, 2008

China’s Communist Party has been receiving wide praise in the wake of Monday’s devastating earthquake in Sichuan province. The 7.9 tremble may have killed as many as 50,000. There are an estimated 26,000 more Chinese still buried in the rubble.

In the past, Beijing invariably suppressed reports of natural disasters. This time, the government has allowed freer reporting of the disaster, both by domestic and foreign presses. China’s official news agency, Xinhua, has continually released news of casualties and relief efforts. As the New York Times reported on Wednesday, “China may be having a defining moment.”

Perhaps. The Party’s new openness is as surprising as it is welcome. Yet in the first days after the horrific disaster the country’s leaders had little to lose. The news naturally has highlighted heroic troops digging through tons of debris to find victims clinging to life. Or it has publicized the deeds of the nation’s premier, Wen Jiabao, who flew to Sichuan to be photographed directing relief efforts and making Maoist-style exhortations.

“Diligent” officials and “brave” troops rescuing “grateful” victims have been the staple of the official press since the founding of the People’s Republic more than five decades ago. Reports of this sort dominate the airwaves and newspapers at this moment.

So the real test of the government’s new openness will come later, when the initial wave of shock and grief has passed and the Chinese people begin to reflect. Then, the Communist Party will be vulnerable. Because of its monopoly on power for more than half a century, it will have no one else to blame.

Of course, the country’s leading political organization is not responsible for unstable geography. After all, there are earthquakes in Sichuan because the Indian subcontinent, once an island, has been pushing into the rest of Asia for about 50 million years.

But most of the casualties this week did not occur because the ground shook yet again. People died and others were injured because they were in, on, or near substandard structures that were bound to fall down.

Already, the Chinese are beginning to think about the excessive number of deaths. In Internet chat rooms some are asking why only buildings for officials survived the quake. The attention on substandard construction has been focused largely on schools because of the failure of the Juyuan Middle School in Dujiangyan, close to the epicenter, where about 1,000 students were trapped.

Children also were buried in schools in Gansu province and Chongqing. The online chatter among Chinese had reached such a point that the Beijing official in charge of disaster relief, Wang Zhenyao, felt compelled to cite the collapse of a government compound in Beichuan county in Sichuan to refute the notion that only schools were constructed poorly.

Schools have been hard hit because of the central government’s tactical mistakes. For example, Beijing, seeking to relieve crushing financial burdens on peasants, abolished the centuries-old agricultural tax. Yet the central government did not adequately compensate localities with other revenue. And to make matters worse, Beijing then required schools to provide compulsory education for all children.

Without revenue, officials skimped on construction, even refusing to pay contractors. “Subcontractors are often forced to factor in the risk of not getting paid by compromising quality and using substandard materials,” said a rural education consultant in Beijing, Liang Xiaoyan, as reported in the South China Morning Post. And as one angry Sichuan resident said about the Juyuan Middle School in an Agence France-Presse report, “I’ll tell you why the school collapsed. It was shoddily built. Someone wanted to save money.”

In these circumstances, townships and villages could not meet normal building standards, much less ones for earthquakes. And Beijing did not require the strengthening of older structures to meet a known danger in Sichuan, the area in China most vulnerable to tremors. In view of all these factors, it was only a matter of time before Sichuan schoolchildren would perish. A geologist by training, Premier Wen should have known this.

Yet the school deaths were the result of more than just policy errors — they occurred because of the fundamental flaws of communism. First, officials did not have sufficient resources to build safe schools because many of them were skimming public funds or diverting them to other uses.

Corruption is inherent in communist political systems, and this disease is particularly prevalent in rural areas like Dujiangyan, where local Party bosses are often beyond the supervision of higher-ups. Second, the Party’s traditional disregard for the nation’s people — no other organization in history has been directly responsible for more unnatural deaths, perhaps as many as 50 million — meant that children were ultimately considered expendable.

Finally, the country’s unaccountable political system did not permit the Chinese people to demand safer structures. If China had a free press, for example, the shocking condition of Sichuan’s schools would have provoked an outcry that would inevitably have led to tougher building codes, better enforcement of rules, and more quake-resistant buildings.

The country, as we have seen in the last few days, is beginning to express its critical views on the hard-to-suppress Internet. That in turn forced the official paper directed to foreigners, China Daily, to editorialize that “we cannot afford not to raise uneasy questions about the structural quality of school buildings.” That’s a good start, but China will not have “a defining moment” until leaders permit honest nationwide conversations about the responsibility of the Communist Party for all the deaths that occurred this week.

Mr. Chang is the author of “The Coming Collapse of China.”
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