Post-Disaster Perspectives

Today in my Business Chinese, I participated in my first meaty discussion about the Sichuan Earthquake that hit China last Monday. Some interesting observations came forth.

First: Chinese people don’t prepare for disaster. If I had a quarter for every time I did an earthquake drill at school as a kid, I would be at least 10 dollars richer. In China, there is no such thing as an earthquake drill. There is also no such thing as a fire drill or fire alarm — although, admittedly China uses the most concrete in buildings out of any country in the world, so fire isn’t huge on the disaster list. So, after the Sichuan quake, Sichuan children are just now being taught duck and cover. Friends who felt the quake here in Hangzhou had to take their Chinese teachers out of the building because teachers didn’t know much about evacuating in the event of an earthquake. Interesting to see how preparedness progresses post-Sichuan 2008.

Second: A friend told me today that Zhejiang University of Technology (our host institution) is requiring (that is, demanding) that all students donate to the Sichuan relief effort. At last estimate, the school is asking 10RMB per student. I’m not going to get into the absurdity of this but the effects are large. Students that originally felt compelled to give out of sympathy are just getting angry about being required to give. To other students 10RMB is worth at least three meals or more here on campus. Philanthropy and sympathy giving are entirely new China so I think it’s interesting to see how giving money plays out. I think the Chinese emotional connection to those hurt in the quakes is deep, but mistakes like requiring donation hurt that connection.

Third: For all the credit that China is getting for being open about the disaster (Japanese earthquake relief specialist are being rushed in), I think we need to take a step back. The Chinese Gov’t is also using this as a huge P.R. opportunity to boost in-country sentiments. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was on the scene in Sichuan within hours of the disaster and that’s great. But what was he doing? He was posing for photo opportunities and TV coverage. And it works. The Chinese unaffected by the quake are eating up the media coverage calling Wen Jiabao “a real man” and “courageous” etc. When President Bush brought out his loudspeaker at ground zero post 9/11, I thought it was a good move but I didn’t think “wow, he’s a great man,” admiring him for helping. Surely, it helps to have a high-level official pushing for quick progress, but it doesn’t need to turn into a massive advertisement for how well the government is helping the people.

Forth: Chinese people are superstitious like none-other. This does not bode well for the Olympics, they say. After the last massive earthquake in China, Mao Zedong died three months later. Three months from now? Olympics central.