Saturday, 31 May 2008

Seven thousand classrooms.

“Uncle, why did our school collapse? Why???"

“Seven thousand classrooms”, that’s what I heard on the radio. And I couldn’t stop thinking about it and they all collapsed at the same time, on thousands of children and teachers. All that noise, screaming, terror, blood, dust and a head jarring awfulness that is beyond belief. All those lovely ordinary people gone, thousands injured and millions left to grieve. There is no social welfare in China and without a family; many of these people will be on their own.

Looking through the many stark, terrible photos and endless throat catching stories is disturbing and reflective, to put it mildly. There is the Mother who covered her child from the collapse with her body and left a simple text message on her phone saying “My little darling, I will always love you”.

Or the twenty-six year old female teacher’s assistant who kept on returning to drag and carry children out until she was eventually crushed. The people wailing over insulted bodies in the street. There are millions of these greatly moving and profound stories.

Yes, all those families and parent’s torn apart and crushed, all those people and why? Well, it was an enormous earthquake and I wonder how our Australian building standards would cope. We generally don’t build for earthquake.

Earthquake. What a terrible word if you think about it, but how far more dreadful it must be as you experience it and if you are lucky enough to survive.

The very harsh and empirical fact is that many schools fell because the government controls everything, is responsible for all education in China and thus the standard of buildings and the infrastructure. China is a Communist dictatorship, and not an open society, at least not as we know it. Thus building codes are often entirely elastic, negotiable, unenforced, bought, sold, bribed, and ignored and violations go unreported, or more to the point, cannot be reported.

Serious criticism in China is seen as a serious offence and is generally treated rather er, harshly. But then mild criticism, ridicule, saying something true instead of the official lie, or even engaging in what merely passes for normal discourse in the free world, is enough to get you arrested by the host of the 2008 Olympics.

The true reason so many schools collapsed, is because they were often rubbish constructions and unbelievably some were without foundations! No people deserve the monstrous results of what is outrageous, widespread, institutional and endemic corruption. Yep, they're doing a lot to fight it, but the corruption grows from a largely closed society and culture, both historical and current. And er, it often comes from the same people 'fighting' it!

In many ways, Chinese are very warm and social people, innocent, plain and complex and as I found when living in Taiwan, often easy to connect very deeply with. They were sometimes the sweetest people even with the as per usual human flaws. And they liked a young dope like me! Amazing, really. And like everyone else, they’re doing what they can to er, get by. The incredible success of the Chinese is due to their own massive efforts and after thousand’s of years of poverty and oppression, so good for them. It's easy to criticise China, but they have found the novelty of grinding poverty wears a little thin after 5,000 years.

Yep, in Asia, I also met some of the most amazingly Philistine conformist bores you could ever imagine. They don't call Taiwan the island of greed for nothin'. Not just Chinese but Asian culture in general is often seriously and profoundly flawed, in that outside of one’s family and group, life can sometimes be a kind of permanent social warfare. And no matter how rich the country, even in Japan, there are no welfare nets. Think about that.

In Taiwan, I remember stopping at motorscooter or motorcycle accidents and doing what we could. But there would usually be me and one or two others, as most didn't even seem to notice or care to stop. It was very weird, that endless flow of indifferent humanity, regardless. And then there was the human worm crawling on the ground of the night market, or the homeless pets slowly eaten by disease and...

As Bo Yang, the serial arrested Taiwanese writer and critic, talking from his rather er, difficult and unpleasant Taiwanese experience, said in his book ‘The Ugly Chinaman', “every Chinatown is like a snake pit, preying on other Chinese”.

It took a lot of people to build those rotten buildings and schools. My God, what a giant and rather unique crime. And look whose paying for it? Ordinary Chinese people and their sad, sad children.

Seven thousand classrooms...I can't get that insane figure out of my head.

Just even count to seven thousand, and then multiply by the numbers of children, then the parents, then the relatives, then the neighbourhood and then the region and then the country. I taught every age group of people in Taipei, Taiwan. Ah, those people were mostly lovely. The children were so affectionate, sweet, happy, and lively and kind that it was sometime’s kind of embarrassing. The adults too, were often without guile. Even if they had nowhere as many faults as me, I still liked a lot of ‘em, a lot.

They used to say to me " are like a Chinese man! Very good family man!" Yes, perhaps, but slightly taller!

When I rode a Sanyang motorcycle around Taipei in those long ago salad days, the Taiwanese used to see the mainland Chinese as more like country rubes and innocents, cos' they were and many still are. This was in the 1990’s, and things have changed somewhat, though not for a lot of regional mainland folks. It’s oddly like this in Japan too. It’s that innocent and sheltered inward looking Asian thing. No, really. Hey, I don’t want to be patronising, as there are plenty of serious folks in Asia that can run rings around little old tiny me obviously, and they er, did! Obviously!

But I digress. There is a stark contrast with the utterly bankrupt Burmese authorities, and the all stops out action of the Chinese people with the enormous assistance of their Government. And a major reason they can mount a serious response, is because the Chinese have a serious economy.

It’s a profoundly moving sight to see the mass of people, the medical teams, rescue workers, the army and even the curious Premier, doing what has to be done and on such a fantastic scale. The relentless effort beyond exhaustion and endurance. Every aid should be given and is being given to the Chinese people. I look at my own family, and note that I live in an apartment building of several stories. The almost painful compassion one feels for the very real human beings who are going through this is as nothing, to what they are enduring and right now.

Of course this is so in Burma too, though without any real aid, and with no serious help from their rotten to the core junta, which is the way junta's generally are. Give the Burmese people the support and their own firepower, and I have a feeling they can perhaps do the rest, as they did in WWII. It is as they say, there but for the grace of God.

But for China, whether those who are courageous enough to speak will be heeded or more likely arrested as per usual, is another thing. Maybe it will happen? Er, maybe not. But the ah, the cat is definitely out of the bag, so to speak. Even though the Communist government, like all totalitarian freaks, have quite an ability at putting said cat back into said bag.

Nature is indifferent to us whether we live or die, and this is never more clear than to people who live in the er, less kind regions on earth. The Chinese are entirely right to tame their environment to their own benefit. With all the problems, flaws and darkness in China, there is also a great and much realised potential, achievement and at some point, however naively premature a view, inevitable change.

At this enormously painful time I wish them well and all assistance.

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