|People throughout the world have been moved by the terrible suffering and destruction wrought by the powerful earthquake that struck China’s Sichuan province at 2.28pm (local time) on Monday 12 May 2008.
Equally, they have been inspired by the courage and resilience of the Chinese people - their discipline, calm and selfless heroism in the face of appalling catastrophe as they have united as one under the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the people’s government to save and rebuild lives and communities.
On Wednesday 28 May, the confirmed death toll stood at 68,109, and, with many more bodies still to be pulled from the rubble, the Chinese government has said it expects the final total to rise to at least 80,000. More than 10 million people were affected by the quake. Hundreds of thousands are injured and some 5 million people are homeless. The area of devastation is approximately 100,000 square kilometres, roughly three quarters the size of England.
This is the biggest and most destructive natural disaster to hit China since the People’s Republic was founded in 1949. Measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale, it was even more powerful than the Tangshan earthquake, which claimed 240,000 lives in 1976.
As Premier Wen Jiabao observed, despite the great losses, it was the speedy relief efforts and the “orderly, forceful and effective” work that greatly reduced the number of casualties this time.
In the face of this calamity, the entire country immediately swung into action, displaying the collectivism, unity and organisation of which only socialist countries are capable.
A 17 May statement from the Party for Socialism and Liberation in the USA noted:
“The US corporate media has been forced to acknowledge the enormous efforts the Chinese government and people have put into this countrywide rescue effort. The night of the earthquake, the first units of 20,000 Chinese soldiers were deployed to Sichuan. In total, the government has dispatched 130,000 Chinese soldiers to the earthquake-ravaged areas.
“The soldiers were joined by hundreds of busloads of civilian rescue teams, police and young volunteers. This rapid and widespread response was ‘a vivid demonstration of the Communist Party’s power to mobilise,’ according to the Washington Post. ‘Lines of buses and cars, many with red banners carrying political slogans, filled highways leading north from the Sichuan provincial capital,’ the article continued.
“There hardly could have been a more difficult place to stage a large-scale rescue effort. The western Chinese province of Sichuan is covered with mountains – the Himalayas to the west, the Qinling to the north, and the mountains of Yunnan to the south. The enormous Yangtze River and many large tributaries flow through the province. A huge number of the roads through the mountains are entirely impassable, and giant boulders continue to rumble down the mountainside due to the quake’s lingering aftershocks. To make matters worse, heavy rain has slowed rescue teams.
“Still, units of troops have marched for hours, fording rivers and crossing dangerous mountain ranges to reach towns that have been completely cut off from the outside world.” (‘China fully mobilises in response to quake’)
If there is a glimmer of hope
The first military rescue team headed for the disaster area just 14 minutes after the earthquake struck. Within two hours, Premier Wen Jiabao had boarded a plane at Beijing airport to personally take charge of the relief work on the spot. In words that have become famous around the world, Premier Wen declared:
“If there is a glimmer of hope, we will do our best to save the people. We won’t give up if there is even the slightest hope of finding more survivors.”
By midnight of Monday 19 May, 360,159 people trapped during the quake had been rescued and brought to safety, including 6,375 pulled from the debris.
Rescuers battled in the face of hundreds of powerful aftershocks, landslides, mudflows, torrential rain and blocked roads. When vehicles could not move, soldiers advanced on foot. When helicopters could not land owing to the appalling weather that compounded survivors’ misery, troops were parachuted in.
A commentary carried in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Daily noted:
“In this earthquake, we witnessed numerous touching moments. When death is staring in the face, parents will give up their own lives to protect their child with their own bodies. Some survivors who just escaped with their life from the debris plunged themselves immediately into the rescue of strangers whom they never met before. A head of a grassroots People’s Congress, who had lost all his relatives to this earthquake, found no time to grieve for his relatives and instead, he led the people to conduct disaster relief with a bandaged head. Our dear armed forces, made up of the sons of the people, dug out the surviving children from the debris and reinforced concrete with their bleeding hands.” (‘Flashing glory of humanity’, 19 May 2008)
The Chinese media has been filled with reports of teachers who sacrificed their own lives to protect the children in their care. Jiang Bojing, a teacher in Hebei province told the Beijing News:
“What does being a teacher really mean? I hadn’t found the answer in the past 10 years of teaching. Today I understand that the highest level a teacher can reach is to protect students with his or her own life when faced with life-and-death decisions.” (‘Lesson of life’s true meaning’, Xinhua, 20 May 2008)
China’s netizens have also been full of praise for the country’s dedicated doctors and medical workers.
“‘I was frightened at the time but I must stay’, wrote Qu Yan, who was performing tumour removal surgery when the quake hit. ‘I had to stay with the patient and finish the operation. If I evacuated the patient would die and I can’t do that as a doctor.’
“‘I have had no rest for more than 40 hours, and nor have my colleagues. I heard of an aftershock this afternoon, but I was too busy or too tired to realise it …’ read the diary of Wang Shenglin, a doctor in the Beijing emergency medical team.
“Many local medical personnel lost some of their families or friends, but there was ‘no time for sorrow’ because ‘more people need us,’ as many of them would tell you …
“The brave rescue actions of the armed forces, the dearest people in China, are highly praised. The story of a 28-year-old policewoman touched the hearts of thousands of netizens. Jiang Min from Pengzhou police office lost ten family members in the quake, including her two-year-old daughter. But she stood in her post day and night to help the rescue work.” (‘Netizens salute heroes in quake-fighting battles’ Xinhua, 20 May 2008)
Such was the scale of the tragedy and the heroism of the relief effort, that even that most cynical group of people, bourgeois journalists, whilst by no means fully shedding their anti-communist prejudices, nor their general contempt for the people of developing countries, could not but be moved by what they saw, and they could not fail to reflect some of this in their reports.
Don’t help me, help others
Writing in the Independent on 16 May, Clifford Coonan reported from the devastated town of Beichuan, the epicentre of the quake:
“Reaching Beichuan is a long march into hell. When you finally emerge scrabbling through the dirt into the town, what lies before you is a breathtaking vision of horror …
“There is still no access by road. People's Liberation Army soldiers rally behind red flags at a rescue station three kilometres away, before starting the trek into the heart of this shattered place.
“Our journey to reach Beichuan, which has been almost completely cut off since last Monday's quake, began at a good pace but we were soon forced to slow to a solemn, single-file column as we negotiated the side of the mountain. We stopped to allow soldiers carrying bodies, and occasional survivors to pass, their faces straining with the exertion of carrying their heavy burdens up these steep slopes and across the wreckage of roads and fields.
“The narrow access track up to the town is also full of villagers bringing whatever little items they can as they scramble back to the refugee camps in neighbouring towns spared the worst of the quake. These are often old people, who move slowly but steadily, in a way that clearly irritates the fit young teenage troops itching to get past. But who is going to tell a grandmother carrying her life on her back to speed up? …
“But even amid the heartbreak of Beichuan there is an occasional story of hope. ‘Don't help me, help the others, they need it more,’ one woman said, as soldiers bore her on a stretcher into a makeshift first-aid centre, seconds after pulling her from the wreckage. She had lived through 72 almost unbelievable hours under the rubble.
At the first-aid station, there is no time for medics to find the woman's name. She looks a youthful 40, wearing a pale blue top and smart trousers. She is weak and delirious, but so far she is alive. The woman is carried on a stretcher back across the mountains by eight strong, sure-footed young PLA soldiers.
“Back at the rescue station, rescuers form a cordon for the returning stretchers. When a survivor is brought through, the soldiers cheer, and when yet another stretcher comes through with a corpse there are disappointed murmurs and sad comments.
“The woman is brought through on the stretcher, a scarf covering her face, and the response is at first muted, depressed. Then, she raises her hand and waves; the scarf is there to protect her from the hot sun. Some of the PLA’s most hardened troops laugh and cheer like schoolboys. This one is alive.” (‘Beichuan: A vision of hell’)
The army is great
In the Independent of 17 May, Claire Soames wrote:
“It was an agonising 100 hours from the moment the quake struck until rescuers pulled Liu Deyun from the rubble of a fertiliser factory yesterday. Little did he think as he went to work on that fateful Monday morning that he would spend the next week entombed in the concertina ruins of his workplace, pinned down under toppled masonry and only able to be freed after sacrificing his left leg in a precarious amputation.
“‘It was a miracle, but miracles happen through hard work and this happened through our hard work,’ said Zhao Hongxing, an army doctor who was involved in the painstaking rescue that unfolded in the pulverised mountainside town of Yinghua yesterday. ‘His first words were “The army is great”’ …
“The 12-hour rescue operation to save Mr Liu was fraught with danger. The entire first floor of the Yingfeng Industrial Company building gave way, with the upper storeys collapsing downwards and pushing the building awkwardly to one side. One foot out of place, one piece of rubble disturbed in the wrong way and the whole structure could have come down.
“Mr Liu, wrapped in a blanket, was borne away on a stretcher to wild cheers and rapturous applause from a crowd of Yinghua residents, eager for a glimmer of good news at the end of a long week of despair. And with the latest survivor delivered to a waiting ambulance, the rescue workers headed back to the ruins where two more factory employees were clinging on to life, waiting for their turn to be dug out.” (‘Alive! Joy at miracle rescue of Liu Deyun, buried for four days in rubble of his factory’)
Communists will come and dig them out
Reporting on the rescue effort in the Independent on Sunday, Clifford Coonan wrote:
“Typical of volunteer rescuers was a construction worker surnamed Tang, who comes from Zhongjiang County, where just a couple of buildings collapsed. ‘I want to save people,’ he said. ‘I’m a construction worker, so I can make a contribution, and use my strength to help the rescue effort. I was in Hanwang this morning and I dug out three bodies. I’m not a party member, but I want to help my country. I’m going to the disaster area this afternoon again, to Beichuan or Wenchuan. I can help.’
“As he spoke, a couple with a baby approached Mr Tang. ‘My relatives are buried. You have to help me,’ the woman said. ‘They are in the mountains, close to Mianzhu. It’s hard to get to, but we can show you. There are many bodies there. We’re worried about disease.’ Calming the near-hysterical woman, Mr Tang told her: ‘Take it easy, people, we will help you. Communists will come and dig them out.’” (‘A tale of two disasters’, 18 May 2008)
On 20 May, Jim Yardley and David Barboza wrote in the New York Times:
“Here in the remote village of Luchi, the local glass factory is a shattered husk while clusters of brick farmhouses are levelled. For Liu Lie, 67, a rice farmer, the situation is dire. He is sleeping with seven family members under a plastic tarp. Every wall of his home has been destroyed. But at the edge of his tarp, Mr Liu pointed to stacks of bottled water, boxes of snacks and food and two bags of rice – all donations from volunteers who came here.
“‘They are coming because they love the Chinese people,’ Mr Liu said. ‘You have to understand the difference between the old society and new society. [Before], we didn’t have food to eat. Now people are bringing us supplies from Guangzhou and all over the country.’” (‘Many hands, not held by China, aid in quake’)
Remarkably, considering it is just a few short weeks since the imperialist media could not find words strong enough to abuse socialist China and its leaders over the counterrevolutionary turmoil in Tibet and the Olympic torch relay, these same organs have been falling over themselves to praise ‘Grandpa Wen’, in tones reminiscent of the depiction of ‘Uncle Joe’ during the second world war.
And like Comrade Stalin, China’s communist leaders will not bask in such approval for long, although they have certainly and deservedly earned the abiding love of their own people and the admiration of working and oppressed people around the world.
To quote again from Clifford Coonan in the Independent:
“He has shouted through a megaphone to survivors in the rubble, hugged rescuers and rescued alike and urged the People’s Liberation Army on to even greater acts of heroism in helping the victims of this week’s earthquake in Sichuan.
“China’s Premier, Wen Jiabao, has emerged as the popular hero of the earthquake relief effort, and the state-run media has run continuous footage of Grandpa Wen as he climbs through the rubble to help with the relief effort, even in some of the most isolated areas affected by the quake. And his tireless efforts have proven a great bonus to the reputation of the ruling Communist Party …
“Grandpa Wen looked tired in the state media broadcast, hardly surprising given the amount of time he has spent flying around the earthquake zone …
“‘Premier Wen was here, you know,’ is a phrase that many displaced people and relatives of victims tell you as soon as they start to describe their experience. Even victims’ parents mention a visit from the ‘people’s premier’ as a source of considerable pride.” (‘Nation looks to Grandpa Wen for comfort’, 17 May 2008)
Writing the same day in the Financial Times, Mure Dickie and Geoff Dyer, reported:
“‘I have been moved by what he has done this week,’ says Zhu Jialei, a 23-year-old office worker in Shanghai. ‘He has been to the most dangerous places, talking to people and encouraging them. He seems to have been wearing the same clothes for the past few days and he cannot have been getting much rest.’ The most popular items on Chinese video-sharing sites in recent days have been images of Mr Wen, often with titles such as ‘Premier Wen, you have moved China’.
“Such has been the surge in his popularity that Mr Wen is often compared to Zhou Enlai, the former premier and perhaps the most respected 20th-century leader within China. ‘Wen Jiabao is the Premier Zhou for a new age’, announced one blog on Sohu.com, the China-based website. A reporter on Chinese state television even got them mixed up: as Mr Wen passed by on a visit this week, the journalist called out: ‘Premier Zhou.’” (‘The caring face of China’)
Not to be outdone, the New York Times reported on 21 May:
“‘He really loves the common people, and we can see this is not an act,’ said Wang Liangen, 72, a retired math teacher from the devastated city of Dujiangyan, who watched last week as the prime minister climbed over the wreckage of a school where hundreds of children were buried. ‘He has brought the people closer together, and brought the people closer to the government.’” (‘In quake, apotheosis of Premier “Grandpa”’ by Andrew Jacobs)
Contrast with Hurricane Katrina
Despite its amazing progress over the last years, China remains a developing country, which still has a long way to go in completely eradicating poverty and building a relatively well-off society in an all-round way.
May’s earthquake occurred in a part of the country that is still largely remote, poor and backward. But to grasp the fact that even a developing country still only in the primary stage of socialism is incomparably superior to even the richest and most powerful imperialist country one need only contrast the response of the Chinese government to that of the Bush administration when Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005.
As the US Party for Socialism and Liberation put it:
“A brief comparison with the US government’s response to Hurricane Katrina should suffice to silence China’s imperialist critics.
“Despite controlling the largest budget and most powerful economy in the world, it took five days for US military personnel to reach New Orleans. New Orleans residents fleeing to safer parishes were turned around at gunpoint by local law enforcement. The New Orleans police were given a shoot-to-kill order to prevent looting. No public buses were provided for evacuations in advance of the hurricane.
“The whole relief effort was conducted on an essentially free-market basis: Those who had the means to find a way out did so. Years later, the people of the Gulf Coast are denied the right to return, as the real-estate developers and politicians used the tragedy to facilitate a massive gentrification scheme.” (‘China fully mobilises in response to quake’, 17 May 2008)
When Hurricane Katrina struck, neither President Bush, nor Vice President Cheney, nor Secretary of State Rice saw fit to interrupt their holidays for nearly a week.
Many years ago, Comrade Mao Zedong wrote: “Only socialism can save China.” Today, amidst the tragedy and tears, the truth of those words is shining in golden letters across the vast land of 1.3 billion people and inspiring countless others on every continent.
Deeply mourn the victims of the Sichuan earthquake.
Long live the People’s Republic of China!
> CPGB-ML pays tribute to earthquake victims - June 2008