Following the Sichuan Wenchuan earthquake, it has been very interesting to watch how the Chinese government and people have reacted, and how many western observers have reacted. For the first time in Chinese history, the Chinese government has ordered that Chinese flags have to be lowered to half-staff, for three days from May 19-21. What is most significant, is that this is the first time that the flag has been lowered for ordinary civilians in Chinese history, ever.
China has always had a larger population than other countries, and the country has had very bloody periods in its history. Some 20M Chinese were killed in the 19th century during a civil war, the Taiping Rebellion, and possibly another 20M were killed in WWII, when Japan invaded China. Millions also died because of bad political policy decisions in the 1950s and 1960s, which reached their culmination in the Cultural Revolution.
Unlike in Washington DC, where you can find war monuments to Americans killed in WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, there are no war memorials to Chinese soldiers or civilians killed in these wars, or to any who died as a result of bad government policy decisions. For the most part, they have just become unknown individuals who died and are now forgotten.
This is why the decision to lower the Chinese flag for ordinary civilians is so different and marks a break with the past. For the first time in its history, the Chinese government is saying that it is OK to mourn for ordinary civilians. This did not happen during the Tangshan earthquake, which killed some 450,000 civilians in 1976, or in 1989, or even so much during the SARS crisis of 2003.
For the first time, a Chinese government has embraced the idea that any human life, even that of ordinary human lives, has value. Actually, this is a very western concept, and is a very important step on the road to democracy. Is this not a valuable change in China’s reforms and opening up? This will make it that much more difficult for any Chinese government to dismiss the value of any Chinese lives which are lost in the future, whether they are due to natural disaster, or war, or for political reasons.
The Chinese government and party have activated their media, and issued an edict that entertainment websites should shut down over the next three days, entertainment programming should be curtailed, along with three minutes of mourning each day.
This move immediately attracted strong criticism from many members of the Twitterati in the US who, to put it frankly, have embarrassingly little understanding of China, and continue to see China in over-simplified black and white stereotypes, as you can see in this feed from Robert Scoble’s Friendfeed account.
When I think that the people who have Friendfeed accounts represent smart, well-educated, tech-savvy people, and they say these things, I just get depressed. The stereotypes and distrust of China just run so deep.
I get a very different view simply because I read Chinese, and I know what many Chinese say and think on the Internet, where people have much more latitude to express themselves than on TV and the print media. Sure, the government has an agenda and is spinning and exploiting this to make themselves look good. And in some ways, they are doing it in a clumsy way. But the government is now accountable to protect the lives of ordinary Chinese.
After 9/11, the US government claimed all kinds of special powers, including surveillance wiretaps, the need to kidnap and torture terror suspects, and the need to invade Iraq because the government of Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and the government needed to keep these weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists. If there is one thing we can learn from all tragedies, it is that all governments have agendas, and they will exploit every opportunity to push their agendas in the event of a tragedy.
But it does not mean that the original intent should be completely dismissed out of hand as the actions of a dictatorial regime.
Maybe I’m asking too much, but can some people, Americans especially, try to look at China through the eyes of the Chinese, and not always try to scare and frighten other Americans into asking what the “rise” of China means to the US and the west? Is it too much to think or ask that maybe, just maybe, Chinese don’t spend everyday plotting how to steal their jobs and turn America into a third-world economy? And that maybe, they are just ordinary people who are trying to get along in life, and raise their child and get him/her in a good school, and buy a house? And that the government is far from perfect, but it has allowed ordinary Chinese to have a much better standard of living than before, and is now, for the first time, beginning to care for and mourn the loss of ordinary civilian lives?
There’s a very simple rule: If you reach out and treat people like friends, they tend to act like friends, and if you treat them suspiciously, they become enemies.
In the beginning, it’s hard to reach out and trust people you don’t know well as friends because they seem so foreign and different, but it’s always works out better in the end.
UPDATE 5/20/08: I was interviewed by Christine Lu of China Business Network about this article and you can read that interview here. This article is also referenced in a blog article for the Guardian (UK).
EastSouthNorthWest has an article about how the Central Publicity Department, which is a Chinese government and party organ in charge of making sure that the official line is carried in the Chinese media, dealt with the earthquake crisis.