By David Bandurski – Chinese leaders launched an all-out publicity drive last week to demonstrate the party’s concern for the public welfare amid devastating winter storms. In the midst of that charm offensive, addressing hundreds of thousands of passengers stranded at the rail station in Guangzhou, Premier Wen Jiabao actually said, “I apologize.”
Over the next few days and weeks, one critical issue will be whether Chinese media are permitted to ask the question: “What exactly SHOULD Wen Jiabao be sorry for?”
Yes, these storms were “natural.” But their impact on China this month and last — and the clear failure of emergency response mechanisms — ultimately speaks to the inadequacy of the political structure and the urgent need for political and social reform.


[ABOVE: Screenshot of featured editorial by Shu Shengxiang on civil society and disaster relief.]

As CMP noted last week, Caijing magazine has already addressed some political problems in the government response, particularly the over-reliance on central directives and the failure of local governments to jump into action earlier.
In today’s edition of Hebei’s Yanzhao Metropolis Daily (燕赵都市报), columnist Shu Shengxiang (舒圣祥) addresses the sensitive social and political question of civic organizations and their role in disaster relief in China.
Shu first butters up national officials by giving them their due: “We should admit that government efforts to deal with the emergency have been effective, that the government has not been struck down by these disastrous snowstorms, and that they haven’t let the people down,” he writes.
Then comes the crucial qualification:

But there are nevertheless regrettable aspects of this type of disaster response. Owing to [the government’s] limited power and range of vision in dealing with the disaster, for example, only broad plans for relief were drawn up, and many people caught up in the disaster were unable to receive effective assistance. Additionally, owing to a bureaucratic mindset and formalistic attitude, many initiatives at the local and regional government levels were too late, too weak, too simplistic or simply stopped short of action.
We can see that basically our traditional method of dealing with disasters remains mired in a mode of “strong government, weak society” (强政府—弱社会). We have only the top-down vertical lines of government action and lack the right-left, horizontal lines of civic action. This means we cannot create an effective grid for dealing with emergency situations. As a result, the scope of effective action is limited and the “quality” of emergency response is hit-and-miss.
In fact, in the provision of social services — and particularly in assisting the disadvantaged and providing of disaster relief — civic organizations (民间组织) have natural advantages over the government. Civic organizations do not, for example, need to be as comprehensive in their response as governments do. They can seize on specific needs and issues and therefore stand a better chance of effectively achieving their objectives. In countries with highly developed civil societies, neglected pockets of society can be revealed quickly so that assistance can be rendered to those in need. Moreover, because civic organizations are not driven by calculations of political point-scoring and are not concerned with profit-seeking, they can more easily earn the trust of the public and become a force for rallying the disaster relief effort.

All of this is of course easier said than done in China, where officials traditionally regard non-governmental or other mass organizations as dangerous challenges to the authority of the Communist Party.
For examples, we need look no farther than the recent arrest of Chinese activist Hu Jia on charges of subverting state power, and the shutdown of the civil society-related publication Minjian.
The Yanzhao Metropolis Daily editorial is probably right that China could deal more effectively with emergency situations by permitting the growth of an active civil society. But Chinese leaders are terrified of the political implications of a society of do-gooders and people who actively care. Which is why veteran journalist Zhai Minglei asked rhetorically after the shutdown of Minjian last year: “What is the most difficult thing to do in China? The good deed.”
“The Chinese people have never lacked good-hearted individuals or the force of charitable action,” Shu Shengxiang writes. “What they do lack is institutional support (制度安排) for the effective mobilization of charitable action and giving.”

As the government reflects back on the snowstorms, it should look not only at [official] emergency response plans but also recognize the important power of civic organizations, and give civic organizations greater room for development at the legal and policy levels.

[Posted February 4, 2008, 3:05pm HK]

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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