On May 12, China commemorated the first anniversary of the devastating Sichuan earthquake that claimed 87,000 lives. The 2008 disaster was a moment of national unity for Chinese citizens who either experienced the tragedy first-hand or via media outlets operating with surprising freedom. What they and the world saw was China at its best.
The country mobilized a staggering amount of manpower, both soldiers and civilians. The now-famous images of Premier Wen Jiabao calling to victims trapped beneath the rubble emerged as a potent symbol of a new and open Chinese leadership, one that did not rule from the confines of Zhongnanhai.
One year on, China has in several respects failed to live up to that proud model of how to manage a national tragedy.
In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, many questioned whether shoddily constructed schools had led to the high number of student deaths, for which the government only recently released an official figure: 5,335. Beijing has insisted faulty buildings were not to blame, a categorical statement that rings hollow in the absence of evidence that might prove or disprove it.
Furthermore, those who have sought to expose cases of faulty construction have been silenced, harassed and jailed.
This treatment has even extended to those who lost children in the disaster. Compensation payments have been meager, protests have been quashed and attempts to seek justice in the courts have been restricted. Some were prevented from joining the official anniversary ceremony for fear their presence would ruin the carefully stage-managed event.
Media freedoms extended in the early days of the tragedy have been snatched away. A blackout was imposed on local media stories investigating faulty school construction. Foreign journalists who attempted to enter Sichuan to cover the anniversary were harassed.
One member of the Sichuan Communist Party propaganda office justified such treatment by accusing the media of attempting to incite insurrection against the government. His statement is patently ridiculous, but also sadly reflective of an official culture of self-preservation.
China deserves better. A year ago, the government proved it could provide it.