Elegy on the loss of Chinese government credibility

Source Article in Chinese: 2008-2013:中国政府公信力之殇
By He Qinglian on April 25, 2013.

There is a time span of only five years between the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008 and the Ya'an earthquake this year, but the difference in the government's ability to mobilize the people and the popular support they enjoyed between these two quakes made people feel as though generations have passed.

One of the most conspicuous problems is the rapid degradation of the political credibility of the Chinese government. Despite round-the-clock effort from Internet surveillance personnel to delete posts and suspend users, various voices of doubts continuously emerged from the cracks of Weibo, China's equivalent to twitter. 

X number of reasons not to donate.

Although a sizable anti-donation campaign has not been formed (and it is impossible under the strict government control), there have been a lot of such comments on Weibo.

In an unprecedented fashion, the citizens in Hong Kong voiced their opposition to the government of Hong Kong making “blind donation”. Aside from the sharp criticism from the Chinese version of the Global Times, quite a number of persons in mainland China showed their understanding to this.

And the main reasons netizens reject making donation are as follows:

The first reason is that the Chinese government has been throwing out foreign aids of hundreds of billions each time and yet whenever a disaster struck home it wanted to pull money from the hands of the people.

The sentiment was shown in a Weibo post by Tushuotianxia:
It's time to call upon the shitizens to donate again! In the last decade, the accumulated matured debt of 50 countries that China exempted was nearly 30 billion yuan. In recent years, it injected $ 43 billion into the IMF; handed $ 10 billion in loans to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, $ 600 million to North Korea, $ 150 million to Afghanistan, $ 20 billion to Africa, and it exempted Vietnam from repaying a debt of $ 50 billion. The total of the above is more than $ 123 billion. [And they ask us to donate?]
Many netizens shared this view.

The second reason is that in the last few years, the Chinese government expenditure on stability maintenance was as high as 600 to 700 billion yuan annually. Many netizens thought the earthquake caused a huge disaster, and disaster relief is itself a stability maintenance measure, the government should take a portion from that staggering fund of more than 700 billion to carry out its work on disaster relief.

The third reason is the question why did the government not issue a forecast of the earthquake. Although the Chinese government insisted, like it did before, that earthquake is unpredictable, websites such as China News published a story that between April 18 and 19, a trans-regional earthquake rescue drill, code-named “Lightning-A”, was held in Sichuan. The drill, carried out with the supposition that a strong earthquake greater than Ms 7.0 happened in a certain place in Sichuan, aimed primarily to check the capability of the firefighting department that is responsible for earthquake rescue tasks. Netizens suspected that the government learned in advance that an earthquake would rock Ya'an, yet it was not willing to issue a forecast.

And then some other netizens posted on the Internet the 2012 budget specifics as disclosed by the State Seismological Bureau: earthquake prediction and forecast: 2.7 million yuan; earthquake data tracking: 17 million yuan; transmission and management of earthquake information: 50.12 million yuan; housing provident fund: 71.66 million yuan; housing subsidies: 86.78 million yuan; administrative costs: 180 million yuan; and bureau operation costs: 210 million yuan. Less than a-thousandth of the bureau's spending was on earthquake forecast.

In this regard, netizens thought that the State Seismological Bureau that could not issue earthquake forecast should be abolished.

The fourth reason is to demand government explanation as to why did the aided reconstructed buildings in the earthquake zone fail to meet standards? To whose pocket did the money go? 

The aided reconstructed buildings in Wenchuan claimed to be able to withstand earthquake of Ms 8.0. However, journalists who went to the scene after the Ya'an earthquake discovered that cracks and frictions were all over the schools that were among the aided reconstruction projects after the Wenchuan earthquake.

The people of Hong Kong started an anti-donation campaign on the grounds that the government of Hong Kong injected nine billion yuan in reconstruction projects after the Wenchuan earthquake, and 70 of the 150 projects did not meet standards. Many of the reconstructed schools and hospital were of poor quality; columns, beams, and reinforcement bars of the buildings were found to have shifted; and the spacing between reinforcement bars differed from construction plans, and so on.

In addition, some newly built schools were torn down after being used for one year or so to make way for shopping malls; to this date, two of the highways have still not finished construction.

With this netizens recalled the customary practices of the Chinese government: after the May 12th Wenchuan earthquake, no one was held responsible for the crushing collapse of hospitals and schools. Instead, those who called for accountability for the construction of the tofu-dreg buildings were put behind bars. Tan Zuoren, for example, is still incarcerated to this day.

“To 'deal with' those who pointed out problems, that's the customary practice of the government,” they said.

Elegy for government charity.

People explicitly refused to contribute to the Red Cross Society of China, and so private institution One Foundation became a magnet for the donation this time. According to the disclosure by Yang Peng, Secretary-General of the Foundation, they received, as of April 23, 129.2 million yuan of donation from 920,000 donors, slightly more than the 1.2234 million yuan of funds and materials collected by the government-backed Red Cross Society of China.

Under the pressure of strong rejection from the people, the Chinese government could not but make a series of concessions.

First off, the Civil Affairs Department of Sichuan province vowed to stage a clean relief; and the Ministry of Civil Affairs stopped setting restrictions as to which organizations the people could contribute their donation to, it also stopped demanding charitable organizations to pass the donation they received to government departments; and the Red Cross Society of China was forced to promise that they would re-investigate the Guo Meimei incident that caused a credibility crisis for the organization, a pledge that was mocked by netizens: Look into Guo Meimei? Just publicize your account records.

After the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, China received domestic and overseas donations of up to 58.593 billion yuan, an astronomical figure that was claimed to have “written a new chapter in the development history of charitable donation in the People's Republic of China”. Thereafter, the Chinese government sees this as a crucial source of revenue, and issued directives that charitable donation be placed under government management. This led to unclear utilization of donated funds, which direct result was the decline in charitable donations.

According to the 2011 Zhongguo Ci Shan Juan Zhu Bao Gao (Charitable Contributions in China report 2011), the total of donations China received from all sectors of society and abroad in 2011 was 84.5 billion yuan, 18.1% down from that of 2010. The sharpest decreases were recorded in government departments and government-operated NGOs. The donations all levels of Civil Affairs departments received fell by 42.19%; and the donations made to the Red Cross Society fell by 59.39% year-on-year.

The reason for the decline in the number of donations [in 2011], Liu Youping, deputy director of the China Charity Information Center, said was complicated. For example, in 2010, a drought in Southwest of the country, Yushu earthquake, and landslides in Ganshu took place in succession in China. These incidents stimulated the enthusiasm of the community to donate and directly spurred an increase in the contributions received that year. 

And then the Guo Meimei incident and a series of other charity scandals coming to light resulted in some negative impacts on the enthusiasm of all sectors of society in making day-to-day donations.

“Disasters Do Not Necessarily Revive A Nation.

After the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, then Premier Wen Jiabao's remarks that “disasters revive a nation” became the main theme of that disaster, and it degenerated into extremely absurd variations like the lyrics by Wang Zhaoshan, Vice-Chairman of the Shandong Writers Association, which contained the line: “even if one dies, it is still a blessing”; and the article by Yu Qiuyu, “A tearful plea that the victims of the disaster do not go to petition”. The remarks by Wang and Yu were sharply criticized by netizens who nonetheless showed an attitude of approval to what Wen had said about the disaster.

Five years have passed, and this year an earthquake rocked Ya'an. Netease launched a special report a day after the earthquake: “Netease Witness: Disasters Do Not Necessarily Revive a Nation”.

Even after the Politburo Standing Committee stressed the saying that “Disasters Revive a Nation”, and that “the more difficult the circumstances are, the greater the efforts all the Party, all the country, and all peoples of different ethnic groups should put in together”, Netease did not change the title of the special report.

What is unfortunate for Beijing is that the saying “disasters revive a nation” has become the target of mockery speeches on the Internet. 

A comment made by “Mortal Shawshank” to a news report was circulated in a frenzied fashion. It read:

I cannot but voice out my doubts: every time an earthquake strikes, the Internet world is turned black-and-white, all the people mourn alike, and all kinds sensational comments and words of encouragement came to sight. There is just not a single person who would ask: how come Japan could weather an Ms 7.0 earthquake as if nothing happened; and yet in China buildings are smashed like bean paste? And this same incident happened twice?
Premier Li Keqiang is not as fortunate as his predecessor. Like Wen, Li went to the disaster zone for inspection, and he did not get heartfelt endorsement from netizens like Wen did.

Lawyer Chen Jiangang, who expressed understanding of Hong Kong's refusal in making donation, added that:

It all has to do with trust. In a society without trust, even if the Premier [really] eats porridge and salted pickles, the people would still think he is just acting.

The saying “disasters revive a nation” is a quotation from a chapter, 'the fourth year of Lord Lu Zhaogong', of the classics Zuo Zhuan. The whole passage read:

What would happen whether a disaster strikes a neighboring state is hard to predict. It could revive after being hit by disasters and expand its territory; or it could be lost to others even if there is no disaster.
The passage means that if the rulers of a state are wise, good, and enjoy popular support, they could unit the people, revive the state, and expand their territories even after numerous disasters have struck; but if the rulers are foolish and bad, then their states could be subjugated even if no disaster has happened.

In 2008, when the then Premier Wen wrote on a blackboard of Beichuan Secondary School in Wenchuan, the media did not dig out the original meaning of the remarks and merely stressed in a one-sided manner that so long as all peoples in China share the spirit of helping each other, then the country could stand tall even after a hundred of disasters have taken place. They did not look at the rights and wrongs of the government at all.

I have pointed out before that the political trust between the Chinese government and the people was destroyed by the government's disregard of the people's livelihood and the corrupt officialdom; the business trust between corporations and consumers was destroyed by all kinds of bad products; and personal trust between individuals was destroyed by all sorts of deception.

A government that has lost political credibility could not possibly enjoy respect from the people, let alone the ability to mobilize the community. 

On this the public opinion in society following the Ya'an earthquake should serve as a reminder to Beijing.