Monday, May 19, 2008

Sichuan Earthquake

From the media reports trickling through, I'm guessing it is difficult for most people to grasp the overwhelming scale of tragedy from last week's earthquake in Sichuan province, China. Let me offer some perspective on it.

Sichuan province, in China's southwest, is probably known best for its spicy food and panda sanctuaries (you can even see them on live web cam). The quake occurred less than 100km from the capital of Chengdu. Probably most people have never heard of this city, but it has an official population of over 11 million people--that is, not counting undocumented migrants from rural areas and other provinces--about 10 times the size of pre-Katrina New Orleans. Chengdu is a vibrant and modern commercial, industrial, and cultural hub of Western China.

Sichuan itself has almost 90 million people, is a little bit smaller in land
area than Texas, a little larger than California, and sits on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau (where the Indian subcontinent pushes under the Asian continental plate, making for big mountains and frequent earthquakes). Chongqing--a massive municipal administrative area with 28 million people that split off from Sichuan in 1996--and bordering regions of two other provinces were affected, too, but Sichuan bears most of the damage.

The devastation appears quite pervasive across much of the region: schools, hospitals, homes, transportation infrastructure, water and electricity production and transmission--flattened. Many of the pictures going around look like Afghanistan...piles of rubble. Chinese media reports say that up to 80 percent of the buildings have been leveled, including over 4 million buildings and 7000 schools. As of noon today, China time, the government is reporting a death toll over 34,000 and injuries over 245,000. That's like half of Wyoming or North Dakota or Boston all getting injured at once. To top it off, all week long Sichuan has continued to experience large aftershocks and heavy rains causing landslides and flooding.

In rural Sichuan, people are exceedingly poor. For the province as a whole, annual per capita income is about US$1400 (an average that includes relatively affluent Chengdu)--pretty low even at China prices. Rural homes are cheaply constructed and not designed at all to withstand such shocks. Pictures show rows and rows of rubble, with people camped out on what used to be their front stoops. As per usual, income polarization has pushed the poorest people into the most marginal areas, susceptible to landslides, etc. The government has sent almost 200,000 tents and more are on the way.

Bigger buildings in urban areas and population centers, which should be built to some code, often are not for a host of reasons. In the rush to grow and demonstrate development to outside officials (who would then reward local officials with accolade and promotions) and potential foreign investors, local officials often push to build as fast and big as possible, with more concern for appearance than quality. Add to this the temptation for construction companies (some private, some state owned companies) to cut corners and squeeze more profits out of lucrative contracts (some of which is then kicked back to local officials), and you get a lot of big, shoddy buildings. There are lots of pictures going around of big cracks just shooting up the middle of high rises. These tendencies are not specific to Sichuan, they just happen to be the unlucky ones of the moment.

The central government has promised a rigorous investigation into corrupt building practices there and promises to mete out some swift Chinese-style justice. If you recall what happened to the former head of China's top prescription drug regulator last summer, then you can have some idea of what might be in store for these people.

Aside from the lost lives, many, many people have lost everything. China's financial system is very underdeveloped, which is important here for two reasons. First, with little other instruments to store wealth and low, low deposit interest rates, people hold much of their wealth in their homes. Mortgages are difficult to get (no NINJAs, no 5% PMI mortgage). At minimum, people will put 30% down, though often people must save until they can pay cash outright. So, for many all their savings and wealth were tied up in these homes. Second, insurance is not very pervasive and instead people rely on informal institutions approximating insurance, for example "mutual assistance associations." For obvious reasons, when everyone is suffering reliance on mutual assistance fails. Most people will get no compensation for their (material) losses.

Add to this suffering the fact that so many victims were children who were attending school at the time of the quake. Recall China's one-child policy, a draconian feat of social engineering. On these one children, doted upon with affections and investments of not just two parents, but in most cases four grandparents as well, rode all the hopes and ambitions for a better lives, the motivation to endure the toil and exploitation in China's rapidly changing socioeconomic environment. Losing a child is always crushing, but even more so given China's social fabric.

I think it is likely that the government will step in to provide resources for the rebuilding--for individual homes as well as obvious infrastructure needs. In recent years (very recent) the Communist Party is growing much more savvy (not quite Karl Rove savvy, but better). They recognize that preservation of their totalitarian one-party rule rests upon the real and perceived delivery of services to the people, and in so doing it can rally the people to a national cause in support of Party rule.

In prior episodes, the government's first instinct was to suppress information and sweep the problem under the rug. The media has juxtaposed this with a 1976 earthquake near Beijing that the government suppressed and refused international aid. This suppresion policy continued til very recently (think avian flu, SARS, tainted fish, and on and on). And let's not forget repeatedly turning violence upon its own people. But old habits are hard to break. Currently, the government is stifling news about an outbreak of hand, foot, and mouth disease. Also, the government at first foolishly failed to suspend the Olympic torch relay, inviting open protest from Chinese citizens. In contrast, the Sichuan earthquake is playing round-the-clock on Chinese TV in the way CNN covers a missing white girl. Foreign journalists are getting unprecedented and unfiltered access. And China for the first time ever has accepted foreign disaster aid.

Why the newfound openness? First, openness to the pervasive suffering being experienced right now is doing wonders to generate sympathy for China, countering a series of damaging PR blunders in the eyes of the world (Tibetan crackdown, selling arms to Sudan and Zimbabwe, etc.). Moreover, it demonstrates to the world that the big bad authoritarian government actually has a heart. To the Chinese people, it demonstrates the effectiveness and efficiency of Party rule, while encouraging them to rally around the government and remain politically apathetic. This will certainly make it easier for the government to close the door again once the crisis has passed, as I have no doubt that they will.

This is not to say the the government response to the disaster is cynical and purely self-interested. Whereas Mao laughed, feasted on lobsters, and wrote bad poetry when tens of millions of people were dying of starvation during the Great Leap Forward famine, people now (Party officials) seem to genuinely care. Premier (China's #2) Wen Jiabao has been on the scene continuously for the past week, directing efforts, touring sites, grieving with and reassuring victims. Today he provided these reassuring words:

Any trivial matter multiplied by 1.3 billion will become a big problem; Any astronomical figure divided by 1.3 billion will become a tiny number. A little kindness multiplied by 1.3 billion will become an ocean of love; A great problem divided by 1.3 billion will become a trivial matter.

And what they are doing is working. Across the country, 1.3 billion people are all feeling the tremors and suffering and are uniting as a nation (and behind the Party). Today at 2:28, the nation observed a 3 minute moment of "silence." In actuality, the entire city was screaming with air raid sirens and honking cars. I was working at the Shanghai Library at the time, where a reference librarian was patiently enduring my broken Chinese (social communication is one thing, discussing the nuances of different statistical concepts and sources is still pretty advanced for me) in trying to help me locate some statistical books. At first I was confused about what was happening, and I think many others there were, too. I thought maybe it was a fire alarm. But soon everyone got the drill and stood up, many with hands held fast to their hearts in a pledge of solidarity.

Deep in the book stacks of the reference section, my librarian began to weep. He leaned on a shelf for support as I comfortingly placed my hand on his shoulder. When the sirens stopped, he quickly led me to a different section, wiping his eyes as he race-walked away in obvious embarrassment. I asked him if he had relatives in Sichuan, a prospect which I knew to be highly unlikely (China's restrictive "hukou" household registration system all but ensures only local people get local government and most other formal jobs). Nope, he was just becoming one with China.

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