Aftershocks in China This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

July 14, 2008
Imagine an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale striking New York City instead of China’s heartland, destroying public schools and wiping Wall Street off the map. Public outcry would be instantaneous – lawsuits, publicity campaigns, ­action committees, boycotts, and of course, hour-by-hour media coverage. Politicians would likely jump on the disaster bandwagon, drafting and ratifying bills left and right from allocating monetary assistance to strengthening seismic standards ­enforcement.

Grasping how China, a country that developed the seismograph in 132 B.C.E., was suddenly left prostrate nearly two millennia later is understandably baffling. Even more troubling is a trend that has been absent from Chinese ­media coverage of the quake: why elementary schools were disproportion­ately affected.

Enjoying breakneck economic growth and seemingly endless capital influx, the Chinese administration, particularly on the local and provincial levels, instituted a policy of salutary neglect vis-à-vis regulation of China’s rather flimsy building codes. Contractors presumably paid these local party leaders to turn a blind eye to hastily constructed public buildings, using the ­extra money to send their children to expensive schools on the more developed eastern coast.

To compound the problem, whether for toys or construction materials (in China, the similarities between the two industries can be striking), supplies are obtained in a complex chain of contractors and subcontractors, none of whom can be easily located and all of whom cut costs in every way possible.

That is not to say that China is hopeless. Chinese bloggers, the closest thing to an opposition group in the country, praised President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao’s efforts to mobilize a large military force (interestingly, several times greater than the National Guard deployment after Hurricane Katrina) and taking several photo-ops in disaster areas.

According to Xinhua, China’s central news agency, President Jintao promised to “make every effort, race against time, and overcome all difficulties” to rescue those trapped in the rubble, while speaking to the parents of missing children. To that end, he invited foreign experts, including those from China’s arch-nemesis Japan – in a move as surprising as if the CIA were to welcome North Korean intelligence for mutual training operations.

Market liberalization, the rise of the middle class, an outpouring of public sympathy, and a more open media (helped in no small part by the free rein it was given in the quake’s aftermath) will ensure that China will someday seriously rethink its flawed strategy of “build first, clean up bodies later.”

As China begins building new schools, hopefully it will realize that the most significant investment for any country is in its human capital: the skills and ­abilities of its citizens. School children in particular ­deserve special consideration as they are not only ­investment for the future, but also a new generation in China’s history.

Perhaps Jintao and his comrades would take safety codes and regulations more seriously if they realized that in only a few years, the survivors of the quake – with memories of their brothers, sisters, and parents trapped in cheaply made structures – will be at a ripe age for protest.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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