The disaster that opened the door

My following article appears in the Amnesty International Australia’s Uncensor campaign about human rights in China:

Once small freedoms are granted in China, they are not easily reversed, writes Antony Loewenstein

The Sichuan earthquake may have largely fallen off the Western media’s radar but the Chinese people remain focused on the disaster.

A number of bloggers are proving that robust debate is increasingly possible, even for aggrieved parents whose children were killed. Many have been denied the chance to mourn their loss and challenge corrupt building practices in the courts. One cultural critic was even accused of “brown-nosing” to the authorities.

The rapid rise of NGOs and their services will not be quickly quashed. A growing number of Chinese citizens are demanding rights that were unimaginable barely a few months ago.

Chinese soldiers have been brought in to fire missiles into boulders and clear the way for a channel to drain the precarious Tangjiashan lake, the bulging body of water in Sichuan province that threatens 1.3 million quake-affected people living downstream. Sadly, the International Federation of Journalists reports that the regime is again imposing draconian media conditions in the disaster zone after a period of relative openness. Old habits die hard.

Chinese author Ma Jian, writing in the New York Times, poignantly reminds readers:

“For three days last month, China’s national flag flew at half-staff in Tiananmen Square to honour the victims of the devastating earthquake in Sichuan. It was the first time in memory that China has publicly commemorated the deaths of ordinary civilians.

“Crowds were allowed to gather in the square to express sympathy for their compatriots. Despite a death toll that has risen to nearly 70,000, the earthquake has shaken the nation back to life. The Chinese people have rushed to donate blood and money and join the rescue efforts. They have rediscovered their civic responsibility and compassion.”

This outpouring of grief was sharply contrasted with the ways in which the regime managed the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. “Even as doctors were caring for students hurt in the melee”, Ma Jian argues, “The party was rewriting history.”

If Beijing is expecting a smoother PR ride in the months before August, it will be sorely disappointed. Mobile phones are becoming even more popular than the internet to spread news and views and the regime has no major techniques to manage it.

Although few citizens are openly critical of the Games itself, it’s dismaying to read the support offered by the Bush administration for security. Washington has approved the export of “sensitive” equipment and expertise to the regime, despite the Export Administration Act specifically stating the illegality of doing so. Like America providing arms to Israel, America’s supposed concern for human rights always comes after the chance for corporations to make money.

But the situation in China isn’t entirely hopeless. A recent feature article by the Atlantic’s James Fallows on the country’s pollution problems highlights the positive steps being taken by Beijing. Massive issues remain, but Fallows reveals a number of officials who recognise they must take drastic action to alleviate the rapid rise of industrialisation:

“The rule of law is still shaky in China, but Chinese environmental lawyers have filed and sometimes won suits on behalf of citizens who are sick because of pollution or whose farms have been poisoned. A former journalist named Ma Jun has created the remarkable online “China Water Pollution Map” for his Beijing-based group, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. Anyone using the Internet can zoom in on a city or village, click on a lake or river, and see the latest pollution readings—and also which factories or farms are creating the problem.

“Jane Goodall’s organization has started “Roots & Shoots” programs to teach Chinese children about environmental problems. Early this year, thousands of people poured into the streets of Shanghai to protest the downtown extension of a Maglev train line, which they believed would give off dangerous radiation near their homes. There was a similar mass protest last year about factory pollution in the coastal manufacturing town of Xiamen.”

The issue of challenging state propaganda and media bias is central if China is to react less defensively when provoked by the West. Of course, Americans, Australians and Europeans are rarely better at hearing criticisms, either.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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