The horror of the real thing is that only a relatively few survivors experienced the unmatched joy of seeing loved ones returned.
So many survivors lost so many loved ones that the additional loss of home and livelihood hardly seemed to matter. Surviving disasters often leaves deep psychological scars. But fighting to survive and helping others to survive is fundamental to the human spirit – in China, no less than anywhere else.
At writing, China's toll was 10 missing or dead, according to government estimates. Put against official World Health Organization estimates of 150,000 total tsunami-related deaths, Mainland China got off very lightly. Tiny Hong Kong, with 15 deaths and scores missing, was harder hit. One supposes that lingering travel restrictions and the Mainland's currency controls can be credited with keeping the Mainland casualty count as low as it was – possibly the last of the old command economy's rare dividends.
As in the American case, China's initial funding commitment was almost inconsequential. Beijing first committed US$2.6m, but as the death estimates skyrocketed, it increased emergency funds nearly 30 times. Undoubtedly it will go up more as China, really for the first time, takes on a prominent, sustained role in international relief. The United States was called stingy for its opening offer of US$35m. Critics (many, Americans themselves) contrasted that amount to Washington's commitment of US$90m to Florida relief after its last big hurricane, which leveled properties and power lines but actually killed few people.
Saying it with cash
The US responded by increasing its allocation tenfold – just as Japan announced it was putting US$500m into relief efforts. Tokyo's announcement both underscored Japan's commitment to put economies back on their feet and its resolve to maintain its preeminent economic role in the region.
While cash commitments were ratcheted up, and community fundraising drives got going, donor countries mounted rescue missions, organized supply shipments and launched countless other projects to help communities along the tsunami's death track.
Among other initiatives, Beijing sent medics to Sri Lanka and medical and food supplies to Sumatra. Taiwan, which announced US$50m in relief aid, organized shipments of rice (2,000t) and medicine (3,000t), and dispatched a team of 200 doctors to Aceh, near the epicenter of the earthquake that unleashed the tidal waves. Hong Kong, being the financial center it is, focused on piling up money, raising over US$50m. Add up all the greater Chinese pieces, government and private, in the tsunami relief story and the total comes close to US$200m, making the collective effort a significant one.
Mainland China is at once a developing country and a fast emerging world economic power. In a globalizing world, situations change quickly: in a decade, China graduated from cheap manufacturing base to major country market. So today, China has enough muscle to set prices and buy energy and mineral assets across the world, yet it still receives development aid – from agencies like Japan's Office of Development Assistance (ODA), which in December announced it would implement a staged shutdown of China aid and soft-loan projects. The ODA said that China's per capita GDP would exceed US$1,400 by 2008, disqualifying it by World Bank standards as a developing economy.
China is developed and not so developed, all in one – understandable for an economy so dispersed and diverse. So it follows that its international relief record has been a record of fits and starts. But with this particular disaster, China turned a corner.
One question now is, when and how will it expand its role from aid donor and establish a modern emergency rescue and relief establishment to match its ambitions as a regional power? It will be years before it has the hardware and logistical infrastructure to play the role taken on this time by the US. But China right now has massive manufacturing capacity to make virtually everything a smashed community needs in a hurry – medicines, food, blankets, oxygen, communications infrastructure, piping for sewerage and so on – and it has the skilled manpower to deliver them.
Time is everything in relief work. Given the resources it has in hand, China has the means to become Asia's major staging ground for international relief – and cut emergency delivery times dramatically. To achieve that requires not so much money as coordination and teamwork – both within China and with participating OECD countries. Modern China has proven it can be adept at both.
Hu Jintao sends a message
Look at an average news month and of all China's leaders, Premier Wen Jiabao gets most of the ink. He sounds off on America's mounting trade account deficit, talks up the central government's effort to cool overheating parts of the economy, or acknowledges the need to improve China's grim mine safety record. He stalks the economic terrain and works the levers. As prime minister and head of government, Wen looks well settled in.
President Hu Jintao's clippings book, by contrast, is thinner, but each entry tends to carry much more weight. They, too, describe a man comfortable in his job. He took the lead in clearing bureaucratic blocks in dealing with SARS, and last year replaced Jiang Zemin as chairman of the Military Affairs Commission.
He has speculated on party reform, warned about the dangers of corruption and, more interestingly, suggested that models such as Britain's "New" Labor Party be considered as examples of regeneration. Having begun the process of reassessing issues at the center, Hu has been spending time looking at the periphery. He has recently rebuked Hong Kong's chief executive for unstated governance inadequacies and warned Taiwan to abandon its flirtation with independence, and promoted an anti-secession law to back up Beijing's stance.
Hu is putting his own stamp on things and turning up the heat on Taiwan because Chen Shuibian's second term as president brings with it the risk of Taiwan's parliament considering and even passing Chen's referendum law on his independence proposal, leading to a new and dangerous stage of cross-strait brinkmanship. Whether the Taiwan legislature would agree to antagonize Beijing by passing such a measure is unclear, but as Chen's re-election as president showed last year, anything is possible in politics.
Taiwan is split, as its manufacturing sector goes through the same convulsions other maturing economies must deal with. The island's capitalist class wants no part of independence. From their standpoint, the faster Taiwan integrates economically with the Mainland the better. But integration also speeds up the hollowing out of Taiwan's economy, which means lost jobs – something that Chen uses in his appeal to voters.
People often look at flags not to salute them, but to see where the economic winds are blowing. If the signals of a promising economic future point one way, most people turn in that direction, as Europeans showed in voting for the European Union. On that basis, Hu should feel some comfort because the mainland looks ever-more clearly to be Taiwan's brightest option, the place where the island's economic potential might best be realized, regardless of Chen's high-stakes gambling.
Tung Chee Hwa's situation in Hong Kong is different. True, he has been given some difficult assignments to handle, like trying to get an unpopular security law enacted. That he flubbed that is understandable, but he has flubbed so many other issues since taking office in 1997, leading to consistently rock-bottom approval ratings from Hong Kong citizens. The list includes bureaucratic stumbling, closed-door deals that went wrong, apparent favoritism for fat-cat property developers, not to mention ignoring the views of the public on key issues: in the end, even Beijing couldn't stay quiet. Hu's public rebuke, a first, was a warning to Hong Kong's chief executive to straighten up and fly right.
It was a wink to Hong Kong's often restive public, as if to say, "Trust me, I know where you're coming from."
Hong Kong has to work, or Deng Xiaopeng's one-country two-systems formula falls into question – giving Taiwan's Chen Shuibian more room to play. In dressing down Tung Chee Hwa, Hu Jintao was saying that the president of China expects Hong Kong's administration to do better by its people. From Beijing's standpoint, if the people of Taiwan overheard the exchange, so much the better.
Zhao Ziyang died in mid-January. Most people in China had thought that the former party chief was dead already. It was a mark of the party's success that even in the Information Age, Zhao had become a non-person. He had spent the last 16 years of his life under house arrest and was around 20 years ahead of his time. In the overheated summer days of 1989, he addressed issues that are still waiting to be resolved – transparency and accountability.