The devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake is still sending tremors into China’s society, writes journalist Ian Johnson, author of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, in the NY Review of Books.“China’s supreme rulers today also have a strong hold over their citizens, but their edifice might not be immune from seismic change in society.”
Today’s state—as, in centuries past, dominated by ethnic Chinese—offered a modern version of historic patterns of displacement. First, Qiang cultural practices were recorded and turned into ethnographic objects as “intangible cultural heritage.” This was then packaged as a tourist destination for Chengdu’s inhabitants. Slogans were tossed about, such as turning the stretch from Chengdu to Jiuzhaigou scenic area into a “Tibetan-Qiang cultural corridor.”
Probably the most dubious example of this was in the town of Beichuan, which was one of the centers of the earthquake. Its ruins were not torn down or rebuilt but reinforced and left as an aestheticized freak show for visitors—a town in what scholars have called a “fixed stage of collapse.” One of its special features is the Earthquake Science Experience Center, where movies of earthquakes are shown. Opened in 2016, it is located directly beneath the site of the ruined Beichuan High School—a graveyard of hundreds of children.
Besides entertainment, visitors are encouraged to “work energetically for the country’s prosperity and glory.” The government’s heroism is emphasized, with Communist Party officials praised for working for the public good despite their personal losses.
The state’s dominance is reflected in Beichuan’s memorials. Over the years, locals have tried to put up their own small places of remembrance, but only government memorials are allowed. Most locals refuse to visit them because they get so much tourist traffic. Instead, the bereaved burn incense or put flowers at the site of their loved ones’ demise—but these are quickly cleaned away by the authorities. It is little wonder that a local teenage girl told a team of visiting Chinese and foreign researchers that “the city is rebuilt, we are finally settled and life takes up its course again, and yet people haven’t found peace and serenity.”
In China, the state’s presence is overwhelming—and often dictatorial. It locked up Tan Zuoren and beat up Ai Weiwei. It closed down the Chinese journalists’ trying to report on corruption. It bulldozed the Qiangs’ culture and means to turn them into minstrels for Chinese tourists. And yet, from the state’s perspective, these are perhaps regrettable side-effects of a larger good: its ability to rule.
This is what the political theorist Richard Löwenthal called a “development dictatorship”: it develops, therefore it is. It has impoverished mountain people and so, while mouthing pieties about participation and sending out teams of academics to conduct field surveys, it builds highways and hotels up into the mountains to rescue them from their own culture and history.
As for the do-gooders in Chengdu, the authorities understand that people need something to believe in—after all, in the past, people actually believed in Communism, too. So they pass NGO and charity laws that allow these bleeding hearts to band together—under government supervision, of course—to donate their time and money.
This is all very well—after the fashion of a harried parent who allows a child to cut the grass with a plastic mower. Except that, in reality, the child is a co-owner of the house and has ideas about how to manage the yard, while the parent obsessively demands control and recognition.
Thus, when China’s then leader, Hu Jintao, left power in 2012, one of the scenes shown at his farewell video tribute was of him visiting the site of the earthquake. Later, when Xi Jinping took office and issued his slogan of creating a “China Dream,” his propagandists included images of soldiers rescuing people from an earthquake. Good Samaritans are well and good, was their message, but it’s the big boys who do the real work.
Just as people were naïve to assume that the activism of 2008 would become the norm, though, it is also premature to conclude that today’s retrenched state dominance is the final word. When the surplus capital created by the Dujiangyan waterworks helped Qin Shihuangdi unite China for the first time more than two millennia ago, his empire seemed unassailable. And yet his zeal to unify and control was his undoing—he was deposed after just a decade in power.
China’s supreme rulers today also have a strong hold over their citizens, but their edifice might not be immune from seismic change in society.
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