Sunday, June 1, 2008

A Nation Reacts to Tragedy

Another trip to China begins normally, starting with a flight to Beijing to rest overnight then to bounce to other city via a China airline. Our initial bounce is to be to Yinchuan in the Ningxia Autonomous Region in the North-central part of the country, bordering the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region.

And as always, our primary mission is to reach another city in China for another round of presentations concerning prevention and treatment of AIDS sponsored by UIC, University of Nebraska, and the Chinese CDC (Center for Disease Control).

We arrive Sunday in Beijing one day earlier than necessary due to scheduling changes. On Monday morning we go to the flag raising ceremony in Tienanmen Square (Heavenly Gate of Peace) which starts at 5 AM. This is not a difficult task because we are jet lagged and sleeping beyond 4 hours the first night is a real achievement. We are warned that thousands of people show up but I thought that on a Monday morning there should be fewer people and arriving at 4:45 is sufficient. So there were not thousands but maybe a thousand. Everyone there was a tourist and almost all were Chinese tourists. At 5 AM about 20 soldiers came marching from their garrison in the Forbidden City and raised the flag while a PA system played the Chinese National Anthem. No one sang. We thought this event was kinda dull and it was not the thing “not to be missed” as the guide books claim. But it was good to walk around and join the crowd and the walk from our hotel was short.

From Tienanmen Square-facing the Forbidden City with the flag pole visible just before dawn.

Chinese tourists waiting for the flag ceremony. Colored hats (red in this case) indicate they are in a big tour group. The tour leader has a flag of the same color so people from other groups don’t end up in the different group and they raise it as they go from place to place. Think of the Pied Piper and you can visualize the image
The soldiers come, raise the flag, and then everyone leaves.
The Peninsula Palace has gotten pricey enough for us to explore other fine hotels, so this time we stayed at the Raffles Beijing Hotel, just two blocks from the Forbidden City and Tienanmen Square and just two blocks from the Wang Fu Jing shopping area. In the middle 80’s both Judith and I stayed here within a year of each other. Back then, the air was thick with coal smoke and the odor of Hydrogen Sulfide and bicycles filled the streets. The few cars that were visible belonged to the government and they used parking lights instead of headlights at night and turned the heaters off even in the coldest weather to save fuel. Back then it was the newer part of the Peking Hotel. I never will forget walking up the dark stairs to the front door only to enter an even darker lobby area, which seemed to be lit with a single bulb. Today, it is everything you expect from a luxury hotel, including wireless Internet access in the room.

Not much was stirring after the flag ceremony so we wandered over to Wang Fu Jing Street and found a McDonald’s open 24/7 and ate breakfast.

Here is what a tour group looks like as they wander Wang Fu Jing Street.
We were shopping for sun glasses at the time the massive earthquake hit Sichuan Province 2:28 PM. We didn’t notice it although some people did in Beijing. We found out on CNN when we arrive back in our room around 3 PM. The earthquake colored our trip to some degree the rest of the time although we were not affected directly.

About this time, national rescue teams were heading to the airport to fly to Chengdu. Fifty thousand army troops were sent. The next day massage rescue efforts were underway. Some heavy equipment had arrived to start to clear roads and crumbled buildings. For the next 5-6 days nothing else was on Chinese TV except earthquake coverage. The carefully controlled media apparently were given free rein to televise all aspects of the disaster response. All in all during the next 6 days, about 2700 people were dug out and saved. Mobile hospitals were set up. Tent cities were set up. President Hu came and comforted the injured and the homeless. Prime Minister Wen was in the air 2 hours after the quake hit and was on the scene coordinating rescue efforts and motivating everyone.

Granted the Chinese government controlled TV media is ultra skillful in showing what they want and don’t want the public to see and hear. But, this skill in itself helped to unit the nation in a way it probably never has been united. Many groups of people around the nation including Tibetan monks were shown stuffing boxes with 100 Yuan bills (current rate 100 Yuan=$14.25). Volunteers had to be turned away because lack of access to the area. Clothing donations were so great that huge clothing piles were made for later distribution.

CNN and BBC also had extensive coverage and CNN covered a story about a village on the outskirts of the earthquake devastation had only one building collapse, the school. Ruins revealed that the concrete had only heavy wire for reinforcement instead of steel rods. Construction corruption apparently has no national boundaries. Corruption runs deep in local and county governments as various sections of the populace strives to secure wealth and power. The city of Dujiangyan was completely flattened including the school, killing 600 students. Many new schools were leveled due to faulty construction. Will this get ignored and swept under rug or will the demands of the populace to punish the guilty have to be addressed?

This disaster has greatly helped the Chinese people unite in a way that few events have ever accomplished. In China, things are accomplished within relationships that are carefully crafted. Once a relationship is established, there is a sense of obligation to the relationship. Therefore, there usually is no real sense of obligation towards strangers or outsiders. There are very strong family relationships but generally speaking there is no national coming to together that we understand in America. Now, I think this nationalism is growing and with it will be more of a move toward democracy, gradually to be sure, but surely.

We have been to Dujiangyan. We had a Sichuan hot pot lunch here after visiting the World Heritage Dujiangyan Flood Control and Irrigation System created in 250 B.C. to tame the Minjiang River.

Here is an overview of the area and some aspects irrigation system. The current dam was cracked but it held.
Below is a photo showing the surrounding hills. In many areas these hills slid into rivers, stopping their flow and creating dangerously unstable lakes.
At this site is the Temple of the Two Kings (Er-Wang) which we visited also. I was destroyed along with many antiquities
There were about 10,000 tourists trapped by the quake for a few days and a few died. Much of life seems to be related to timing of events.

I could not help remembering our Katrina disaster and our government’s response. What a contrast


GETkristiLOVE said...

That's it? They come in and raise the flag and everyone leaves? Did you ask for your money back?!

GETkristiLOVE said...

I've read a lot of stories that contrast the two events. It's interesting the differences.

Dad E said...

GKL-I was also wondering at the time how things were being shown at home. The contrast between how news is presented by different nations is huge sometimes. Its a good lesson about withholding judgment until you have more information.