The damage wrought by the Sichuan earthquake is so massive, yet so inadequately understood, that the economic and political fallout in the longer term can only be guessed at.
What is certain for the moment is that the central government will need to channel enormous amounts of money and other resources into the region for recovery and rebuilding to prevent it from becoming a showcase of dysfunction and neglect amid massive wealth accumulation along the coast.
Still, in these first days after the earthquake, the Chinese government has convinced most sober observers that it is taking the disaster seriously, sending in troops, equipment, aid and political figureheads to give the victims — and TV viewers — a sense that the government has things under control.
A degree of skepticism remains necessary, however, about the way that Beijing is handling the crisis. There are two main reasons for this.
The first is China’s bailing out, together with Indonesia, of Myanmar in the UN Security Council for the junta’s criminal neglect after Cyclone Nargis. Misanthropic geopolitics is hardly a first for China, and it appears Beijing will once again not be held accountable for giving the junta such cynical support at a time of immense suffering. China’s message is cold and clear: Aid for victims of natural disasters is inescapably a political process — a bargaining chip. And this truth begs the question of its motivation in acting so quickly in response to a domestic disaster of similar scale.
The second is China’s refusal to admit rescue teams from other countries until yesterday. The original justification for not doing so — difficulties with logistics — was lame and irresponsible. The real reason likely had more to do with giving ordinary Chinese the impression that their government could do all the hard lifting, quite literally.
Now the authorities have relented. Japan and Taiwan will be sending in teams today, and there have been requests for more equipment, all of which points to the seriousness of the situation in Sichuan: Even propaganda is being trumped by the situation on the ground.
Some observers have noted a marked openness in the media coverage of the disaster. The relatively free reporting on the devastation — including unfettered access for a number of foreign journalists — comes in marked contrast to coverage of previous natural disasters in China, such as January’s snowstorms and the impact of Super Typhoon Saomai in 2006, and the bloody crackdown in Tibet.
The Chinese Communist Party finally seems to be exhibiting a healthy concern for the way the viewing masses perceive its behavior.
Its reaction to this disaster in particular suggests that legitimacy increasingly must be earned and not assumed, and that popular opinion is a resource that must be carefully harnessed rather than simply manipulated.
Even so, skewed domestic coverage of the earthquake’s aftermath has already started in earnest as the government regresses to emphasizing miracle tales of survival and the feats of heroic soldiers, while ignoring stories of villagers angry at the authorities for the shoddy construction of schools and the limitations of the rescue effort.
For all of its secular rhetoric, the communists remain superstitious: The year 1976, which brought untold death and destruction in the Tangshan earthquake, also saw the end of Mao Zedong (毛澤東) and the emergence of a new era in Chinese politics.