Monday, May 26, 2008

Time's cover story

I've admired Time's China coverage ever since its cover story three summers ago titled "China's New Revolution," with Mao's image front and center blotching out broad strips of red-orange sunlight, the symbolism all too apparent: China's rise was eclipsing its closest Asian competitor, and the rest of the world better watch out. About a year later, Time declared its Beijing Bureau would begin filing regular dispatches from the world's fastest changing country, this in the face of "reallocating" of "resources" and that was reason enough for me to keep my subscription despite the slew of soft reporting: health, how-to's and why stories (i.e. "Why ___ Did ___"). An ice cream sundae once made the cover of Time. For real.

This week's cover story (it's not the cover in the States... vaccines and a picture of a frowning baby won out) again focuses on China, specifically on the impact of the quake as it relates to government and society. Penned by Simon Elegant with reporting from Austin Ramzy, Lin Yang and Jodi Xu, it hits all the key points, noting that in the aftermath of tragedy we've been exposed to a side of China hidden from the world for as long as anyone can remember, and possibly hidden from the country itself. The revelations are subtle though startling, and they are, without a doubt, a welcome change. Whether they'll last is another question.

If I may, a few thoughts on the article's key points:

"We Chinese people are growing closer and closer together," adds Wu Xiangping, 28, who took leave from his job at a Beijing advertising firm to join the relief effort. "And because of that the country's morality is rising too."

Morality is a tricky issue, and I'm not sure we can conclude the collective morality of a country that beats dogs in the streets has been elevated X percentage points, or at all, after the disaster. The outpouring of concern seems genuine, certainly, but how much of it is the result of a national, officially sanctioned emphasis on outreach? And while the stories of volunteerism and goodwill far outnumber those of this variety*, we would do well to remember China's a large, sprawling country where opinions aren't unified -- they never are. The fact that those in the South speak what amounts to a different language, their dialect unintelligible to many Mandarin speakers, makes it easy for some to rationalize that the earthquake happened "out there," thereby dismissing the relief efforts and ignoring the earthquake coverage altogether.

*Read the statements of the supposed brother: " the time, she just felt that the 3-day moratorium on all entertainment activities was too forced..."

The earthquake has been a "shock of consciousness" as scholar Jiang Wenran puts it, a collective epiphany when the nation was suddenly confronted with how much it had changed in two decades of booming growth — and liked what it saw. When the national emergency abates, much of China will revert to its familiar ways, of course. But something is fundamentally different. There is a new confidence in the ability, even duty, of ordinary Chinese to contribute to building a more virtuous society and a willingness to press the government for the right to continue.

That last sentence is probably the most optimistic sentiment one can express in any balanced, well-informed article about China and its future.

Says Jiang: "It's a major leap forward in the formation of China's civil society, which is vital for China's future democratization process." That doesn't mean the Wenchuan earthquake will lead to elections in the next few years, but the complex and shifting relationship between the Communist Party and increasingly vociferous citizens could evolve into some form of compromise between absolute autocratic control and Western-style democracy.

Leap forward, eh? Word choice aside, there's hope, for sure. I'm reminded of Rob's comments a few weeks back in our g-chat conversation about how leaders are fallible, and that I should see China's government leaders as flawed, corruptible human beings. I wanted to respond (but didn't because I didn't have the right example) that the Central Government's leaders are unlike the elected officials Americans are accustomed to, those who smile or talk their way into office, and unlike regional officials in rural outskirts who bully or bride their way to power. People like Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao work their entire lives to attain their current position, and it's hard to imagine they'd get to the top and suddenly forget what got them there: a commitment to the country's betterment. As the Time article states later,

Within two hours of the earthquake, Wen was on a plane to the disaster area and for the next four days, Chinese TV was flooded with images of the increasingly exhausted-looking leader as he rallied the relief forces, offered succor to survivors and even choked up himself.

Think back to President Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina, how long it took him to leave his vacation spot and his patently staged photo-ops. Maybe someone could have said it better than Kanye, but the rapper's basic message cut straight to the truth: Bush didn't care, not really. It was a sad reality fleshed out in the months after.

It's not just China's self-image that has changed. The quake has altered, at least temporarily, the world's perception of China, whose growing economic and military might is viewed with suspicion and fear in many quarters.... The outpouring of international goodwill "has changed everything," says a Western diplomat based in Beijing — even rekindling the guttering Olympic torch. "The Olympics seemed destined for disaster and that would have been a major setback for China's emergence onto the world stage," says the diplomat. "Now many people will be cheering for the Chinese and hoping they pull off a good show. That will be pivotal for China self-confidence and its perception of its place in the world."

We haven't heard the phrase "Western bias" or "anti-China" in more than two weeks, and there's no coincidence here. The road cuts both ways, of course, and it's important that Time pointed this out: "Some of China's most xenophobic bloggers expressed astonishment at the sympathy shown for their country by the rest of the world, the donations of cash and goods and personnel." From what I can tell, the Chinese are truly appreciative of the world's condolences, even more so because they've been caught off guard by it. I think a segment of the population is waiting patiently for the other shoe to fall, but most understand that the world can be a global community, and that despite everything -- limitation of resources, etc. -- there may be hope yet for humanity.

This cathartic outpouring of national grief helped put paid to the notion that China lacks civic spirit. Academics have long argued that Confucian ideals, which emphasize duty to family, have mutated over the millenniums into a mentality that viewed contributions to non-relatives as a waste of precious personal resources.

Must investigate. Will return to subject at later time.

The normally muzzled Chinese press has been freed by the information ministry to saturate the airwaves with quake coverage. The leash was also loosened for the unruly Internet.... As surprising as the freedom is the sophistication of the coverage: it's on television and radio around the clock, and newspapers have put out special editions. One news anchor even dressed down a reporter on air for broadcasting from the comfort of her hotel room rather than venturing into the field.

Not kidding when they say "around the clock." Even now the coverage remains ceaseless, with the stories transitioning almost seamlessly from rescue efforts (lights and cameras in the thick of night) to scientific explanations (interviews conducted in seismology centers) to national mourning ("heroes" was an oft-mentioned word) and, most recently, human interest profiles (the photo to the right has absolutely captivated the country). I wonder if the reporters and anchors will be as motivated and enterprising in the coming weeks when the storyline shifts to corruption and anger.

The real danger to the party comes from its rotten base: the county and township officials whose corruption and venality has had the greatest impact on the lives of hundreds of millions. There's sure to be backlash over the number of children killed by the quake, buried in their classrooms as shoddily built schools collapsed around them. In one structure alone — the three-story Juyuan Middle School in Dujiangyan — at least 600 students died. "It was built out of tofu," says Hu Yuefu, 44, of the building that toppled and killed his 15-year-old daughter. He holds local government officials and building contractors responsible. "I hope there is an investigation," Hu says. "Otherwise, there are a thousand parents who would beat them to death."

Read this recent Time blog entry and tell me if you can't see the ominous cloud just on the horizon: "But, as my colleague Austin has remarked in one of his past articles, these people have lost their entire worlds and most importantly their only children. They have nothing to lose. They cannot be intimidated by the usual threats of arrest or promises of money or other rewards. They will not tire or rest until they get some sort of satisfaction."

We'll leave off with Time's kicker:

The Wenchuan earthquake has exposed how much China has changed and offered a fleeting glimpse of what might be. The political and cultural aftershocks will roll on for years after the ground has ceased to tremble.

POSTSCRIPT: For another noteworthy cover story, check out Time's Jan. 22, 2007 issue: "China: Dawn of a New Dynasty."

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