In 1999, the 921 earthquake destroyed lives throughout central and northern Taiwan. More than 2,400 people were killed, not counting those who died in post-traumatic circumstances (suicide, early death from debilitation, etc).
But when the Chinese government, through the Red Cross Society of China, kindly offered to donate aid, many of us at the time were outraged by what seemed to be a callously, insultingly small amount of cash (US$100,000), according to our own Taipei Times in a report on Sept. 25, 1999. Then foreign minister and current Taichung Mayor Jason Hu (胡志強) likened Beijing's apparently obstructive behavior to "a robbery committed during a fire."
There's much more to this than meets the eye. As you will see, the Chinese had a perfectly good reason to offer that sum. Skeptical? Bear with me.
Apart from inheriting a 5,000-year-old civilization, the Chinese are famous for inventing things. And not just objects and practices that Westerners closely associate with Chinese culture, such as chopsticks, gunpowder, footbinding and female infanticide. We're talking things that people from other nations and cultures in their presumptuousness had assumed were their own: soccer, golf, pasta, clocks -- even toilet paper.
But Chinese ingenuity has its limits. There are some things so far beyond the control of humans that even the Chinese seem unable to invent a remedy. These are things we will do well simply to understand. One of these is devastation -- Mother Nature's occasional but brutal reminder of who is in charge in the long term.
The reason I raise this, dear reader, is that lately there have been reports of disasters hitting China. Earthquakes, drought, typhoons -- they all make an appearance. But the news is not all bad. Apparently, the news is splendid.
On Aug. 26, Agence France-Presse (AFP) quoted the state-backed Xinhua news agency as saying that an earthquake struck Yanjin, Daguan, Yiliang and Suijiang counties in Yunnan Province. Xinhua reported widespread destruction, yet the death toll was miniscule.
You would think that in most countries this would be a miraculous thing. In Yunnan's case, something extraordinary must have happened for everyone to be out of their houses at the same time the quake started shaking. You may even wonder why foreign correspondents relaying information from Big Red's media outlets do not add the customary warning sentence: "The figures could not be independently verified."
Perhaps, my more paranoid readers might suggest, this is because reporters are not allowed to verify them. Surely, you bluster, this is a latter-day example of book-cooking in the tradition of the "In agriculture, learn from Dazhai" (農業學大寨) campaign that hoodwinked Mao Zedong's (毛澤東) masses for a decade.
You would be wrong. The Yunnan death toll is not as far-fetched as it sounds. It is perfectly plausible that on that frightening day, the good men, women and children of the four counties were attending public executions at the sports tracks of local elementary schools.
But enough speculation; time for some facts.
The reason Yunnan suffered so little is because a coalition of Chinese meteorologists, rescue workers and engineers invented a powerful tool that allows death tolls to be calculated without weeks of clawing through rubble and hunting down missing people. And this is why confident toll figures are issued so quickly in China's state media -- and rarely increase in subsequent days.
This invention is known as the Collapsed Building Fatality Quotient (毀樓死數). After several decades of research, a team of experts theorized that various factors mitigate against the loss of Chinese lives in common disaster scenarios. The empirical upshot was a neat ratio: The scientists concluded that one person would die for every 1,500 buildings that collapse.
The quake in Yunnan provided evidence of the predictive value of this quotient. AFP quoted Xinhua as saying that the number of collapsed buildings was 1,500. The death toll? One. This is a validation of the quotient so elegant that it makes you want to shake, rattle and roll.
And the unlucky casualty? My money's on a People's Liberation Army executioner who tripped when the temblor struck and shot himself in the neck.
Now, as I understand it, the Collapsed Building Fatality Quotient is a nefarious science. The quotient varies across different forms of disaster, such as typhoons, flash flooding, tsunamis and attacks on civilian homes by the People's Armed Police.
Chinese scientists say there is also a skewing of the quotient depending on the severity of a disaster and the provincial agency that assesses the damage. This must be why when Super Typhoon Saomai struck Fujian and Zhejiang provinces last month, different quotients were applied and the death tolls proved to be inconsistent. But they were very low, so overall we can assume that the quotient is quite reliable.
A corollary of this method is the Fight-or-Flight Quotient (保逃數), a theory which stipulates that the number of Chinese that can be evacuated from a location is in inverse proportion to the quality of road and transport infrastructure. So, in advance of Super Typhoon Saomai, the strongest to hit the region in 50 years, we are told by AFP on Aug. 10 that 1.5 million people were evacuated from a modestly developed part of the Central Kingdom.
We are not told where they were evacuated to, but that does not matter, because researchers say the Fight-or-Flight Quotient has been shown to hold regardless of the limited number of -- or even lack of -- emergency facilities and shelters in nearby counties and provinces.
Apparently, this is why we should not be at all surprised that a population equal to that of Kaohsiung City spread across two provinces can be smoothly and nearly completely evacuated to locations hundreds of kilometers away in the space of two days.
And so to the problem I posed at the start: Why did the Chinese offer such a seemingly paltry amount of aid after the 921 quake?
The plain truth is that China's offer did not amount to a smack in the face of human decency. Our anger resulted from a misunderstanding: Because the Chinese think of Taiwan as a province of the People's Republic, Beijing's advisers had assumed that the Collapsed Building Fatality Quotient would also apply here and so donated accordingly. Quite simply, they reasoned, if there were around 50,000 collapsed buildings, then divide by 1,500 for the number of fatalities: in other words, about 33 Taiwanese died, give or take a limb. Elementary.
Dear reader, of all things that the Chinese have invented over the millennia, I think that nothing comes close to the Chicoms' ability to create numbers. It's their most precious contribution to the human condition.
And I think we should be grateful that almost all of the world's news agencies are able to share with us the fruits of China's creative labor without intrusive comment.
Heard or read something particularly objectionable about Taiwan? Johnny wants to know: email@example.com is the place to reach me, with "Dear Johnny" in the subject line.
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