The road to democracy is paved with cell phones

The number eight is traditionally considered lucky for Chinese. But since the earthquake that devastated China’s Sichuan Province on May 12 many Chinese have been reassessing this. There were nearly 80,000 deaths exactly 88 days prior to the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, which is scheduled for the auspicious date of 8/8/08. More significantly, many are blaming the political system for the loss of life, including many children.

Indeed, the disasters in both Myanmar and China in the past two months underscore the failure of authoritarianism and dictatorship. Lack of openness and transparency have conspired with ineptitude and political corruption to deliver misery and death.

The behaviour of Myanmar’s military junta has been worse. It has been in denial since the cyclone hit on May 2. Navy vessels from the US, Britain and France carrying humanitarian supplies have been forced to wait outside the country’s territorial waters. Some were diverted to Thailand where they have had to turn over their aid supplies to the UN for on-shipment to Myanmar, further delaying the arrival of much needed foods and medicines.

The government also forced cyclone victims out of refugee camps and back to their villages. Aid groups have criticised this because it was more efficient to distribute aid to people in camps than to search for them along the devastated coast line. The homeless now lack access to shelter, food, clean water, doctors and medicine.

Bizarrely, while Myanmar’s government has denied foreign aid workers access to the affected areas, it complains that donors are not pledging sufficient money for rebuilding. The junta claims US$11 billion will be required and international donors have only pledged $150 million. No wonder. Aid agencies and governments want to know what happens to the money they hand over to the government. (It is impossible to give to anyone else, including Buddhist monasteries.)

The UN claims that one million people are in desperate need of assistance; aid can only reach them by helicopter or small boats able to navigate rivers and tributaries. The US has said it was in a position to deliver much-needed supplies to most survivors within three days if allowed to enter Myanmar’s waters and airspace. So far the government has said no.

The situation in China since the Sichuan earthquake last month is better. China has improved its crisis management since the SARS epidemic of 2003. Immediately after the quake offers of assistance from foreign rescue teams were spurned. Within days, however, this obstinacy melted and foreign rescue teams poured in, including the first military contingent from Japan to enter China since World War II. China now understands that the world wants to see a humane response to crises. The government also called for three days of official mourning; the first time this has occurred for the death of ordinary citizens rather than State leaders.

Also for the first time the Communist Party has allowed personal donations and non-Government groups to raise funds and provide assistance to earthquake victims. Previously the Government and Party positioned themselves as the source of all sustenance and aid. Interestingly, because private volunteering disappeared after the Communists came to power in 1949, fund-raising was done by some very small clubs, like SUV and photographic clubs run by the country’s budding private sector entrepreneurs.

These are welcome changes from a Government reluctant to share power and even more reluctant to ask for help. But there is a long way to go. Will there ever be a transparent investigation of why the earthquake caused such devastation and of why so many schools in the poor villages and towns of Sichuan Province crumbled while government buildings remained standing? A full investigation has been promised -- but many ordinary Chinese are sceptical. Mid-ranking officials normally become the scapegoats in corruption trials while the "Big Potatoes" walk free.

In recent days school rubble has been cordoned off to keep reporters and grieving parents out because the Government fears protests. The police have even stopped reporters from interviewing the parents at makeshift memorials near the collapsed schools.

Parents who lost the only child they could have under the one-child-per-family policy, are already asking for compensation and investigations. The Government has sought to assuage grieving parents by dispatching medical teams to reverse sterilisation operations. One group of parents has tried to initiate a lawsuit against the Government. However, their claim has already been rejected by a local court in the town of Dujiangyan. Since complaints by many villages contaminated with HIV-tainted blood in the 1980s are yet to be heard by the courts, it seems unlikely many of these parents will find justice.

The media has told what it can and cannot cover. In the past editors have lost their jobs or have been sent to prison for running stories critical of the Government, so they take notice. The word has gone out to focus on stories that profile heroes, particularly heroic Party members and Government officials. Hence there has been a steady flow of news about soldiers and policemen who perished while saving others or who carried on after discovering that their own loved ones had died.

Stories about parent protests are banned. Reporters are finding it more difficult to get approval to travel to some of the worst-hit areas. Journalists from media groups with a reputation for exposing Government corruption, such as the privately owned Southern Weekend and Southern Metropolis Daily, have been recalled from the earthquake zone.

What the disasters in Myanmar and China have shown is that human rights and simple human dignity are best respected in a democracy. Authoritarian regimes will always cover up their mistakes, stifle legitimate anger, and breed corruption. Not democracy in the Western sense with its parliamentary system and universal suffrage. Those of us living in Asia know these are far over the horizon in this part of the world. Even the relatively democratic systems of Singapore and Malaysia do not quite measure up to European and American expectations.

But even though the Confucian roots of East Asian nations do not allow individual rights to trump social harmony, Confucianism still upholds human dignity. What is needed, then, in China and elsewhere, are democratic institutions compatible with Confucian tradition, such as an independent judiciary and an independent media which will act as a check on government power.

Is there any hope of this? To an extent modern communications technology is shifting the political paradigm. In China, where almost no one trusts the government and the media in times of crisis, the internet and mobile phones have become the main sources of information. During the SARS epidemic those with access to foreign media coverage via the internet sent text messages to their friends. After the earthquake, too, the most reliable sources of news have been SMS messages, blogs and twitters. It was through these that ordinary Chinese were mobilised to donate to the rescue and reconstruction efforts – not through Government edicts.

Obviously this same technology could be used to raise questions about corruption – not just the corruption that caused schools to collapse and children to die, but the corruption that permeates the entire Chinese political system. That is why the Sichuan earthquake could be the harbinger of better times ahead for China. Mao Zedong famously said "power comes from the barrel of a gun". It is ironic that the power of the State he created could one day be threatened by the humble mobile phone as common people message their grievances to each other.

Constance Kong is the pen name of a Shanghai-based business consultant.


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