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As China Mourns, Government Navigates Quake’s Aftermath

May 19, 2008 at 6:15 PM EST
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China paused for three minutes of silence Monday to remember victims of last week's earthquake and to begin three days of mourning. Margaret Warner reports from Beijing and Shanghai on how both the government and Chinese citizens are handling the crisis.
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MARGARET WARNER: Early on Sunday morning in downtown Beijing, people were lining up to give blood to victims of the Sichuan quake.

The rush of blood donations throughout the country was so great in the first five days that the Chinese Red Cross is now limiting the number of donors. Yet they keep coming.

Among them was 25-year-old supermarket worker Yang Sha Sha.

YANG SHA SHA (through translator): I was very upset to see what happened. This is not the first time I’ve come to donate blood. But the number of people here is greater than what this blood bank can hold, so I feel very touched.

MARGARET WARNER: There’s been an unprecedented flood of financial donors, too, in a country with little tradition of philanthropy. Hundreds of millions of dollars had poured in by Saturday.

Also touched by the tragedy, some of the millions of migrant workers from rural provinces who provide the labor for Beijing’s construction boom. Thirty-two-year-old He Qiang lost co-workers on his crew, which is rushing to complete a six-star hotel for the Olympics.

HE QIANG (through translator): At our construction site, the people from Sichuan, they bought tickets and they went home. I watched TV, too, and I see a great pain. When I see people taken out of the ruins, I feel miserable.

Support for Chinese leadership

Melinda Liu
Beijing Bureau Chief, Newsweek
I would say that the government is now riding on a wave of goodwill and sympathy, of course, condolences.

MARGARET WARNER: This tragedy could have been a political setback for the Chinese government, which was trying to keep the country focused on hosting the Olympics just 12 weeks away.

But for now, the quake has actually generated a tremendous surge of support for the leadership and given it a chance to repair its battered image.

For a week now, the public has been gripped by wall-to-wall coverage of the disaster on state-owned media. They've watched more than 100,000 Chinese troops go in as rescuers.

Premier Wen Jiabao rushed to the scene within hours to direct relief, and President Hu Jintao made an on-scene visit, as well.

A leadership so personally engaged in crisis management and so willing to let the media in to cover it is a far cry from the way this same government responded to the Tibet riots in March.

Resident Newsweek correspondent Melinda Liu says the leadership's reaction to the quake has paid off politically, so far.

MELINDA LIU, Beijing Bureau Chief, Newsweek: I would say that the government is now riding on a wave of goodwill and sympathy, of course, condolences.

MARGARET WARNER: That was certainly the feeling of Hou Xuelian, who lost two former classmates in the quake.

HOU XUELIAN, Business Writer (through translator): I feel the Chinese nation is very unlucky this year. So many disasters happened in this country. But through this event, we can see that more people love their country, love their government, because we've seen the government has tried its best to tackle this disaster.

MARGARET WARNER: There is some dissent on the Internet. This Web site asks, "If the frogs in Sichuan seemed to know the quake was coming, why didn't provincial officials know, too?" This site showing children buried under ruins asks, "Why did the schools collapse?"

But for now, the pride most Chinese feel in their government is leading them to expect more, like a massive rebuilding program for the devastated area. That means this first week of emergency response is only one chapter in a very long tale and major challenge for the Chinese government.

Nation in mourning

Margaret Warner
NewsHour Senior Correspondent
When you turn on your television set, just a screen appears saying, "All entertainment has been cancelled for three days."

JUDY WOODRUFF: After preparing that report in Beijing, Margaret and her team then flew to Shanghai. From there, she talked to Jeffrey Brown earlier today.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Margaret, today was the first of three days of national mourning for the victims of the earthquake. Tell us what you saw there.

MARGARET WARNER: Jeff, it's been quite a moving day. I mean, the first thing I noticed just coming out of the hotel is that the Chinese flags everywhere were at half-staff.

Now, unlike in Washington where this happens if any member of Congress dies, it's very unusual here. It hasn't gone to half-staff since President Deng Xiaoping died, what, 11 years ago.

So then we went to an interview where we were talking about the environment, but when the quake was mentioned, this very senior official just started to tear up.

Now we're here in Shanghai. And the torch relay, the Olympic torch relay, was supposed to come here tomorrow. That has been suspended. When you turn on your television set, just a screen appears saying, "All entertainment has been cancelled for three days."

The really most touching moment was we were actually in the airport in the domestic terminal flying from Beijing to Shanghai when 2:28 p.m. came. And we were in a sort of fast-food restaurant. And everybody stood. The cooks came out from the kitchen in their white coats.

And everyone just stood in a circle looking at one another and then with bowed head as the three minutes went by. And then, even after the three minutes were over, I looked out in the terminal and people were very, very subdued.

So there is just definitely a sense of participating in national grief, very much like, I think, Americans felt after 9/11, you know, this feeling of kinship with one another.

JEFFREY BROWN: 2:28, of course, the moment when the earthquake hit, right?

MARGARET WARNER: Exactly, one week ago today.

Will the new openness last?

Margaret Warner
NewsHour Senior Correspondent
[The Chinese government] did try at first to say only the really official news agencies could go there, and all the other reporters basically ignored the authorities and went, so then they threw off all the controls.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you mentioned in your report the media coverage and the very public engagement of the country's leaders. What's the thinking on why there's been this greater openness, and will it continue?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, that is the $64 million question. That is the question everyone is debating, which is, why did it happen? And there are many theories.

One is, apparently, it was reported on the Internet before it was in the mainstream media that China has become so interconnected now through the Internet that they couldn't step on the story.

They did try at first to say only the really official news agencies could go there, and all the other reporters basically ignored the authorities and went, so then they threw off all the controls.

Another theory is that they had learned, the leadership had learned a lesson, particularly from the SARS epidemic in 2003, when, instead of getting right on top of it, they let the provincial officials kind of jerk them around and keep information from them.

And, of course, in the rest of the world it was only the Chinese government that looked bad. No one believed the Chinese government didn't have authority over the provincial officials. So somebody said to me last night, this time they just left right over them. When this happened, they just completely took charge.

And then, of course, there are theories that even recognizing that perhaps they didn't handle the Tibet outbreak as well as they should have, in the public relations standpoint, they didn't handle even the horrible snowstorm at the end of January as well as they could have, and they didn't want to look to the world the way Myanmar looks.

So all of this could come together or maybe in 10 or 15 years we'll read a book that tells us really what led to it. But it definitely is a sea change. Nobody knows if it will last.

Expectations high for rebuilding

Margaret Warner
NewsHour Senior Correspondent
If the central government lives up to now the expectations the public has, it's going to cost billions and billions and billions of dollars and take years. It's a very high bar.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, of course, there's clearly so much work ahead now in terms of the rescue effort and then the rebuilding. And as you report, there are a lot of questions about shoddy building practices, particularly at the schools. Can you get any sense yet of whether that conversation will continue, as well?

MARGARET WARNER: Actually, you put your finger on it, Jeff. In the media here, you are not yet seeing any investigative reporting about why XYZ school fell down.

Most of that reporting about shoddy school construction and so on is really taking place either in the foreign press or on the Internet. So it's more open, but it's not what we would be seeing in the United States right at this moment.

I think the biggest danger for the government is -- I mean, the government will be able -- they've already launched an investigation into why so many lives were lost.

But the public now has huge expectations about what the central government's going to do, everything from taking care of all of these people to building new development zones in Sichuan to get these factories and homes off the fault.

I mean, this is going to cost billions -- if the central government lives up to now the expectations the public has, it's going to cost billions and billions and billions of dollars and take years. It's a very high bar.

JEFFREY BROWN: Thanks, Margaret.

And over the next two weeks, Margaret will be filing more reports from China on the NewsHour and on our Web site at PBS.org.