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From The Socialist newspaper, 21 May 2008

China: Earthquake disaster exposes regime's failings

AN ESTIMATED 50,000 people or more were killed when a powerful earthquake struck central China last week. Some five million survivors are homeless.

A high school in Juyuan collapsed in seconds, killing all but a handful of the 900 students. In Mianzhu seven fallen schools buried 1,700 people. Stunned survivors demanded to know who was responsible for building such fragile buildings.

The Chinese authorities, recently in the spotlight over human rights abuses and with the Beijing Olympic Games just months away, are desperate to show they are on top of the situation.
Chen Lizhi and Vincent Kolo expose the shortcomings of the regime in the light of this disaster.

THIS WAS a powerful earthquake, the worst to hit China for 32 years. Stormy weather and buckled roads delayed troops reaching Wenchuan county, the epicentre of the quake, 74km to the northeast of Sichuan's capital, Chengdu.

Fifty thousand People's Liberation Army troops have been dispatched to Sichuan, but rescue work has been severely obstructed by storms, massive rockslides, and blocked roads. Rain and thick clouds made it impossible for military helicopters to land.

Meanwhile, despite the storms, tens of thousands are sleeping outdoors either because there are no buildings left standing or for fear of aftershocks. There are urgent appeals for tents, food, blood, medicines and above all for trained medical personnel to be lifted into the worst-affected areas.

Wenchuan county is in the Aba Tibetan-Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, where 46% of the population are Han Chinese, 18% are Tibetan and 34% are ethnic Qiang. The Aba region was the scene of large ethnic Tibetan protests in March which were brutally suppressed, with 13 Tibetans reportedly shot dead.

Emergency programme

The massive earthquake, following this year's severe winter disaster, poses major challenges for China's one-party state just three months before it hosts the Olympics.

True to form the central government dispatched premier Wen Jiabao to the earthquake zone, to demonstrate its 'hands-on' approach to crises. "In the face of the disaster, what's most important is calmness, confidence, courage and powerful command," he said to journalists in Sichuan.

But as the winter crisis showed, the bureaucratic top-down approach of the Chinese state (and most others around the world), makes it harder to mobilise mass voluntary efforts to meet such a situation.

Li Chengyun, Vice-Governor of Sichuan, called on both officials and the masses in Sichuan to fight the disaster and rescue themselves. But the ruling party eschews all steps by 'the masses' to organise themselves independently of the officialdom, making absolutely decisive mass mobilisation an onerous problem in China.

The central government has distributed 360 million yuan in relief funds to the disaster-hit areas on 12 and 13 May, but such sums are wholly inadequate.

More than 280 billion yuan has been spent by the government on the Olympic Games. Taxes on company profits, reduced from 33% to 25% last year, should be immediately increased to finance the disaster relief work and the massive reconstruction programme that will be needed in Sichuan and other affected regions.

Socialists and labour activists in China share the grief of the masses over this terrible disaster. But this does not mean we place confidence in this government to meet the crisis with the necessary policies.

A grassroots' and workers' earthquake emergency programme is needed, to ensure speculators and profiteers do not take advantage of food and other shortages to line their pockets!

Democratic control

And in every such disaster - from Burma's horrific cyclone, to the 2004 tsunami - the problem of corrupt officials misappropriating aid, either for financial gain or to further their own political ends is widespread. And not only is the officialdom to blame.

In Sri Lanka, the state auditor general in September 2005 - nine months after the tsunami killed over 40,000 - noted that out of 1.16 billion dollars committed, only 13.5% had actually been spent. Aid workers awarded themselves huge salaries and excessive prices were charged for raw materials used in reconstruction work. All this, as the CWI in Sri Lanka explained, because the relief work was not under democratic control!

Such problems can only be prevented by the setting up of democratic committees in all earthquake-hit areas, to receive and distribute relief aid in a fair and non-profit making manner.

Similar mass democratic structures are needed to prevent food price speculation. Already there are warnings in the state media of new inflation shocks, especially for food prices. April's CPI figures rose again to 8.5%, following a small decrease in March. Food prices jumped 22.1% in April, and tens of millions of poor families are experiencing serious hardship.

Accountability applies also to the problem of rebuilding the devastated areas. Valid questions are already being aired on internet sites: Why were so many schools and hospitals wholly or partly collapsed, yet government offices fared much better?

During the winter chaos in China, it was discovered that massive cheating in the construction sector, using faulty or substandard materials, exacerbated the collapse of the electrical power grid in many parts of southern China, especially in Guizhou province.

Electrical power poles, built in the 1950s under the planned economy, proved to be far more resilient than poles built in the 1990s, which were found to have been manufactured without the legally required steel reinforcing bars, and consequently snapped, bringing down power lines. Corrupt building practices may also emerge as a contributory factor in this latest tragedy.

It is against this background that socialists and some other democracy activists in China are discussing and exploring the possibility of mobilising urgent relief contributions independently of the state agencies, relying on the spirit of generosity but also the untapped skills and initiative of working people, students and poor farmers.

A workers' and grassroots' aid initiative is clearly sorely needed amid this terrible catastrophe, although it will unfortunately come up against huge problems of illegality and repression because the Chinese state fears all independent activity.

This is an abridged version. The full article can be read on
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