Now obviously, with anything related to China, there's massive gaps in the views and opinions of people, especially in regards to how the government handled the disaster and what the media was putting out there. On one side of the fence were those that wrote off President Hu and Premiere Wen's visits to disaster areas as publicity ops, and claimed that the Chinese media censored any chaos that occurred, only giving an impression that the entire country was unified and that the government was handling it with utmost efficiency and urgency, like a well-oiled machine that couldn't go any smoother. On the other side were the more nationalistic-sentiments that proudly proclaimed their support for the Communist Party and government officials, praising them for diving head-first into the disaster zones, President Hu going to coal mines and meeting with workers and volunteers to boost morale, helping to personally load helicopters with relief supplies, and Premiere Wen making 3 trips within 9 days to various worst-hit places.
So...where does that leave me? Well, honestly? Leaning towards embracing the efforts put forth by the Chinese government, especially considering the USA government's disastrous response to Katrina, but pushing to surface some troubling thoughts at the same time. The way I see it, whether the officials are doing it for photo ops or to boost support (which doesn't make too much sense since...well it's a 1-party government...so it's not like they have to worry about elections or anything) as long as they quickly and efficiently restore some sense of normalcy to the people then...isn't that what counts? Whether or not the media censored chaos and discontent from the masses, let's face it, mass anger and frustration isn't going to resolve the situation any sooner is it? So in times like this, isn't it better to censor out the frustration and chaos to portray a sense of calm and order so as to not encourage more chaos? If people at one train station sees people at another one starting to push and shove and follow suit, that can lead to some massive damage to the people themselves, to the military and guards sent to keep the order and possibly to deaths which I think would have the western media pouncing on as they happily bring about comparisons to the Tian'An Men Square incident back in 1990 (I mean some of the bigger train stations had several thousand people stranded in there...and with that many people a lot of damage can be done if order isn't maintained), nothing makes the west happier then seeing chaos in China it seems. It also makes people a lot more motivated to help to see photos of workers and volunteers doing their best to get things back on track then to see photos of mass riots and anger-venting. There's a lot to be said about psychologically motivating people to unite and join as a nation, a lot more useful and helpful than mass chaos and riots just so that "individual freedom of speech and expression" isn't impaired (not to mention whether that concept actually exists in practicality in any country is one that still needs some heavy debate I think). At times like this I'm going to risk getting called undemocratic and say that ensuring the survival of thousands trumps the right of a few individuals to express disagreeing opinions, you can express them after we've saved the lives of those thousands ok? Before that, quite literally sit down, shut up, and either help out or stay out of the way at least.
I know here in the west there's an instinctive knee-jerk reaction against censorship of any kind, but let's face it, 1) it happens over here anyway, just without us being informed about it and 2) sometimes censorship is necessary/beneficial. I also find that when it comes to the Chinese government officials, when they make speeches about doing what's best for the people and ensuring a prosperous and harmonious year for the people, I tend to be inclined to believe they're sincere, at least in their intentions, whether or not the bureaucratic system allows it all to be accomplished as they hope is another issue. When it comes to western governments, there's this natural sense of criticism, skepticism and doubt, so when I listen to speeches by Bush and/or Harper, it's always with one eyebrow raised and when they mention helping the people my internal response is "yeah right, like you care, pft". Now I wonder...is that propaganda that's seeped through into me even after having spent the past 15 years in the west? Is the Chinese propaganda that powerful? But then again...thinking back on the history of the Chinese Communist Party, I'm more inclined to think it's 5% propaganda and 95% their historical record that has earned them a respect from me like no other (except my mom...no one beats my mom). Action speaks louder than words, and nothing exemplifies that better than the track record of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party). It certainly does sound like I'm spewing propaganda to say that they've consistently demonstrated a sincerity towards the Chinese people since their creation (minus a few hitches in the road, which I think I'm more than willing to forgive given all the good that they've done). I think in the case of the CCP there's a very fine line between propaganda and truth, and heck, isn't it propaganda anyway on the part of the western countries due to the Cold War that's made the idea of Communism such an unacceptable ideal?
I really think we need to look at the results before determining whether or not the CCP is a good government or not and not simply write it off as authoritarian and thus must be brutal and inhuman. In the circumstances of this snowstorm disaster, out of many steps taken to help the people;
- the central government issued immediate relief supplies and food be sent to disaster zones upon the arrival of the snowstorm,
- they shipped 40,000 tonnes of vegetables down south in order to keep the prices low (prices were beginning to soar since transportation of vegetables was expensive due to the danger of the roads with the snowstorm),
- top-level government officials gave up their own New Years' festival plans to visit disaster-hit zones,
- the PLA (Peoples' Liberation Army) were sent in within days of the snowstorm to deliver supplies and help out the people (there's that knee-jerk reaction against military over here too, but the PLA in China's always enjoyed a very respected position, yes even after the Tian'An Men Square incident of 1990)
- and from the latest news a good portion of the disaster zones' have had their electricity restored,
- life's slowly getting back to normal for many in the snowstorm-hit zones already.
Compare that with the victims of Katrina whom, the last I read about in an article this past summer were still recovering with almost no help from the government. Some people compare the two and simply claim that since it seems China's made such a fast recovery, then the damage must have not been as severe, and since only 60 or so people had been killed mostly in a road accident when a bus slid on the ice the disaster couldn't compare with Katrina in scale. Wrong. Dead wrong. It infuriates me that when the Chinese government does well in quickly solving problems, the west downsizes the problem as if it wasn't that great in the first place. If the Chinese government had let the disaster run its course without intervening...I shudder to think of the consequences. It's as if the CCP can't win either way, if they do a good job and solve problems quickly, 'the problem must have not been so difficult to tackle in the first place', if a problem gets out of hand then 'heavens the CCP must be useless and of course they need to democratize!'
I remember we had a debate in one of my politics classes about the role of the government, and the prof mentioned that there were many in the west, especially right-leaning economists, that felt the role of the government should be to interfere as little as possible, and a parental role for a government was almost blasphemy. Here's a bit of info to put a new spin on East vs. West; historically, in China, local judges/magistrates were called "the father-mother officials", meaning they were suppose to and expected to treat the citizens of that village/city as his children. The official was to settle disputes as if both parties were his own children, firm but merciful, caring and helping the citizens of that village/city, that was the role expected of officials. Emperors were taught to "love the people like his own sons" (and daughters too I'm assuming), there was no debate, no doubt, no questioning of whether or not the role of the government was to be parental OR NOT, there was no OR NOT to think of, you just were suppose to. That notion I think still resonates in the CCP today, of course it doesn't always happen, to care for over 1 billion people as one's own sons/daughters is quite an impossibility, but the backbone idea is there. The role of the government, without dispute, is to care for the people, to provide, to love, to help, of course that's being chipped away at with the current turn towards capitalism in the market arena as capitalism demands a withdrawal of the state. However, in emergency cases, such as with this snowstorm, I find myself once again looking at the photos of the leaders of the CCP with tears in my eyes, propaganda or not, publicity stunt or not, photo op or not, I find it hard to deny that without their guidance, the sufferings endured by so many would have continued for much, much longer. I look forward to the day when I can see photos of Stephen Harper or George W. Bush Jr. personally helping to load helicopters with relief supplies and visiting the common people at the cost of their own family reunions and holiday plans.
News and photo gallery sources:
1) Muzi daily news on the snowstorm (English)
2) Photo gallery of snowstorm and stranded travellers Pt1
2.5) Photo gallery Pt2
3) Xinhua news on the snowstorm (English)
4) Xinhua news, recovery from snowstorm
5) Xinhua news, photo gallery
And finally, I'll finish this post with 2 of the most inspiring photos I have ever seen. Suspicions of propaganda, photo ops, publicity stunts aside...
President Hu personally helping to load relief supplies onto a helicopter.
Premiere Wen celebrating the New Year with the people in a village hit by the snowstorm.