The Ya’an Earthquake: Donation Revolt in Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong

By Qing Lang, translated by Jack

Qing Lang (晴朗) is a commentator for Radio Free Asia’s Cantonese service. You can read the original here.

Whether or not the Ya’an earthquake was a man-made disaster, whether or not the Three Gorges Dam influenced Sichuan’s geological structure, these are not questions that a short commentary is able to answer clearly. Even if you look at this earthquake as purely a natural disaster, the extended effect that it triggered is more shocking and thought provoking than a natural disaster.

In the Wenchuan earthquake five years ago, the land was battered, scenes of devastation met the eyes everywhere. This once affected the feelings of the Chinese people and overseas Chinese, the people and governments of every country in the world all extended a sincere helping hand. But the Wenchuan earthquake also toppled down the stage props of the false harmony and prosperity. The many innocent lives that were buried under the rubble of “Tofu-dreg” buildings drew people’s attention deeper: why did a natural disaster completely expose a tightly concealed man-made calamity? Even if the Chinese people are unable to escape a natural disaster, they at least ought to put an end to this kind of man-made disaster that is tragic beyond compare in the world, right?

But this line of thought immediately runs into the iron gate of autocracy, this regime does not allow any forces outside of the system to investigate the truth and clear up responsibility. All of the civil organizations and independent persons who are not under the control of the Communist Party are potential enemies of autocracy. These people are even more hazardous than a natural disaster, this is why Tan Zuoren (谭作人), Ran Yunfei (冉云飞) and Ai Weiwei (艾未未) were all arrested one after another.

One should admit, in the face of the machines of state violence, common people have a deep feeling of fear. To supervise power and the government is to violate the worst political taboo. As long as this road is blocked, everyone can only be silent and put up with the reality. But, that kind of totalitarian system has no way of avoiding or curing this malignant tumor, that is, that the party monopolizes everything. After abusing power to the extreme, uncurbed corruption is like spreading cancer cells, it makes the entire country fester and reek from top to bottom. The Chinese Red Cross’s Guo Meimei and her wealth-flaunting scandal” is just a tiny cross section of the cancer, but it reflects the terminal illness of the entire system.

The “Guo Meimei effect” has been continually fermenting, all the way until the Ya’an earthquake where it finally exploded. The masses of the mainland not only refused to donate to the Chinese Red Cross (not a member of the International Red Cross), in a single day, netizens wrote more than 100,000 posts on the Red Cross’s official Weibo: “Scram!”“No f***ing donation to you!”

Coincidentally, the people of Hong Kong and Taiwan did not open their wallets generously either as they had done five years ago. In Hong Kong in particular, the “Donating Not a Single Penny” campaign resonated among many residents. In addition, because of the objection by the majority of directly elected representatives, the Hong Kong Legislative Council did not approve the Special Administrative Region (SAR) government’s 100 million Hong Kong dollar disaster relief donation.

When one leaf falls, you know it is autumn everywhere. The significance of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan all refusing to donate is extremely far-reaching. It has not only punctured the government-run Red Cross, a malignant tumor of power, it has also made the old tricks of “distress regenerates a nation” and “the more natural disasters, the more patriotism” totally bankrupt. Chinese Communist Party authorities have consistently treated funerals like weddings, every disaster has become an opportunity for the government to erect monuments to their achievements, make refugees endlessly thank the party and country, and at the same time, demonstrate to the people how to perform patriotism and nationalism. On the other hand, natural disaster and disaster relief also provide corrupt officials a quicker path to accumulating wealth. Everyone knows that the Wenchuan earthquake, with charitable donations rolling in, fattened up many corrupt officials’ wallets.

The debate (with English subtitle) by the Hong Kong Legislative Council’s directly elected representatives and the SAR government’s Chief Secretary for Administration is edifying. Legislative Council representatives said that they were not refusing to donate, but were demanding supervision and openness as where the donation is spent and what spending rules are. Chief Secretary Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said, since it is a donation, there is no sense in supervising how they use it. This may sound like it makes some sense, but in Hong Kong, charitable organizations and donations are open and transparent, and the rules for receiving and spending donations are made public. If Hong Kong can do it, why can’t the mainland? This touches on the essence of the discussion. The fact is, this cannot be done in the mainland, and it is impossible for it to be done there.

During last year’s rain storm flooding in Beijing, residents already started communally refusing to donate. One person announced that he was willing to donate five million RMB to the Red Cross with the precondition that the Red Cross must make its accounts public. This proposal was refused with stern words by the Red Cross–they would rather not take the five million RMB than expose their accounts. Why is this? Are the Chinese Red Cross’s account books also like China’s soil pollution, a “national secret?”

To put it bluntly, if you want to know how government-controlled resources are used, as the Hong Kong Legislative Council representatives demanded, then it is not a “socialist system,” especially not “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” You had better not think that, having witnessed the refusal to donate in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, Beijing authorities surely will make a determined effort to reform the Red Cross. This is not the issue merely of the Red Cross, it touches on the foundation of the authoritarian regime itself.

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