I think what is most devastating, from an emotional point of view, about the Sichuan Earthquake was that so many children were crushed to death as their schools collapsed like pancakes during the earthquake. The death of mostly innocent children is one of the most crushing blows that nature can inflict upon the human race.
As Ivan asked in The Brothers Karamazov: why do the innocent suffer if there is a God? And the answer remains elusive as ever.
So I was really glad when I read this story from the New York Times, which describes how one school in Sichuan did not collapse, and all 2323 of its students all survived:
Nervous about the shoddiness of the school building, Mr. Ye scraped together $60,000 to renovate. He had workers widen concrete pillars and insert iron rods into them. He demanded stronger balcony railings. He demolished a bathroom whose pipes had been weakened by water.
His school in Peace County very likely withstood the 8.0-magnitude earthquake because he pushed the county government to upgrade it. Just 20 miles north, the collapse of Beichuan Middle School buried 1,000 students and teachers.
The number who survived seems tiny compared to the overall death tolls, but it is a small consolation in what is otherwise a devastating natural catastrophe. But it also shows that had local governments paid more attention and enforced stricter building codes, many lives, especially lives of innocent children, could have been saved.
I think the Sichuan earthquake demonstrates the center-periphery dilemma that confronts the CCP as it attempts to modernize a country as large and as populous as China is. Despite the unprecedented prosperity that has characterized China, post-Deng Xiaoping regime, that prosperity has largely been concentrated in the administrative-political center, namely in Beijing and the southern coastal cities. It is only in the center that the CCP has the strongest rule, while it struggles to impose its authority on local authorities on the periphery, namely the country-side.
This center-periphery problem is not a new problem for China, as the ancient Chinese dynasties have struggled with the same problem for centuries. For the most part, the old dynasties were relatively successful in overcoming this administrative problem (and at bottom, it is an administrative problem). However, the methods used by the old dynasties are clearly not going to work in a contemporary context. Furthermore, the old methods were extremely draconian, and their revival would make the CCP an even more authoritarian regime than it is, a state that no one who wants China to become more liberal would want to see realized.
The dilemma is a real one, and it has huge political implications for the CCP. If the CCP cannot effectively establish authority in the peripheral areas, it will lose its credibility, and credibility is pretty much the only thing that’s propping up the CCP’s authority. Already, the Sichuan earthquake has produced political activism:
The Chinese government estimates that more than 7,000 schoolrooms were destroyed in the earthquake. The widespread destruction has prompted grieving parents to take to the streets to demand investigations, and that in turn has become the biggest political challenge to government officials in the aftermath of the earthquake. The police began clamping down this month on the protests.
If the CCP cannot effectively provide basic services and welfare to its citizens in the peripheral, eventually it will have its legitimacy questioned. Hopefully, as horrific as the earthquake was, it will have produced two desirable outcomes. First, it will have alerted the CCP to pay more attention to the periphery and improve its governance in the country-sides. Second, it will have aroused a greater political consciousness in the Chinese public, one that is more conducive to the formation of a strong, independent civil society that can effectively stand against the monolithic rule of the CCP.
There have been some optimistic signs that both of these things are actively underway. First, the CCP has launched a massive investigation, which will hopefully fortify and improve the fundamental infrastructures that connect the center and the periphery. Second, the unprecedented amount of money raised by Chinese people themselves is a sign that the Chinese people are, so to speak, willing to flex their civic muscles.
Hopefully both of these things will become permanent, and that, in my opinion, would be no less of a minor miracle.