By all accounts, 2008 was a banner year for China.
The quake that ripped apart China’s dream
For the first time, China was hosting the Olympic Games, that badge of honor that separated what comedian Ali Wong calls “jungle Asian” from “fancy Asian.”
“The fancy Asians are the Chinese, the Japanese. They get to do fancy things like host Olympics. Jungle Asians host …diseases.” sniffs Wong.
Indeed, in five short years China made the leap from hosting the SARS epidemic to hosting its coming-out party, which was what media had dubbed the Beijing Olympics. The event, set to launch on the auspicious 8.8.08, would mark a milestone for an increasingly open China, one with a burgeoning market for investigative journalism, an active blogosphere and increasingly confident global presence.
But barely three months before the opening ceremony, the magnitude 8.0 Sichuan earthquake ripped apart that dream. From that point, it is easy to trace the different path China took: one that has led to increased media repression and a hobbled civil society.
It didn’t seem so initially. As part of the promises made to the Olympic organizing committee, Beijing loosened restrictions on foreign journalists, initially making it much easier for us to move around freely and report on the devastation in Sichuan.
Authorities were happy to have us write about the swift work of the quake’s first responders. But once we started probing into allegations of shoddy building practices, particularly at schools, the barriers came down.
I was detained for a few hours while covering one schoolhouse protest. Another time, public security officials pursued me after I’d driven away from another protest, pulling over my car. Other journalists were roughed up or had their equipment seized, or worse. Tan Zuoren, who tried to set up a database of schoolchildren killed in the quake, was sentenced to five years’ hard labor. Artist Ai Weiwei, working on a similar effort, was beaten and placed under house arrest.
Most heartrending was Beijing’s treatment of bereaved parents. They were forbidden to speak to journalists, forbidden to demand explanations on school safety, forbidden even to mourn properly. Barely months after the quake, most were coerced into signing pledges that they would “come back to normal life and normal production as soon as possible.”
The earthquake also exposed one of the darkest sides of the one-child policy. Ironically, the earthquake’s epicenter had been one of the test areas for the policy before it was launched nationwide in 1980, so many of the children killed were from one-child households. The earthquake marked the time when the word shidu – parents who had lost their only child – came into popular use.
Ten years is a long time in China, where things move at breakneck speed. The entire destroyed city of Beichuan, for example, has been replaced by New Beichuan, in a mere three years. The babies born to quake parents – dubbed “reborn kids” – are already in school. (These children are described by a school principal as “even more spoiled than before,” in an award-winning documentary by Zhijian Mu.) The one-child policy, which accentuated the pain of so many, has now been loosened to a two-child policy.
But some things remain stagnant. To date, there have been no conclusive investigations into the collapse of these schools, despite official promises. It is still hard to ascertain exactly how many schoolchildren died in the earthquake: estimates range from 5,000 to 19,000.
Bound so closely together, the Sichuan earthquake and the Beijing Olympics are like two sides of the same coin. The ruthless clampdown after the earthquake was largely powered by Beijing’s urgent need to put on its party face at the Olympics. Later that year, Liu Xiaobo and other activists unveiled Charter 08, the manifesto advocating democratic reform. Soon after, Liu was in jail. He would win the Nobel Prize, but die in captivity.
It is human nature to gild the past and imbue it with perhaps an illusory glamour. But when I look back on the years in China leading up to 2008, they really glistened. Those years held a sheen brighter than any Olympic medal, for it was a time when China’s progress seemed as assured, and as stable, as the ground I walked on.
Mei Fong is a columnist at Inkstone. She is a fellow at DC-based think-tank New America Foundation and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.