In 2008 China experienced two natural disasters: snowstorms that halted mass transportation across the nation, leaving millions stranded and the Sichuan Earthquake that left thousands dead and entire cities leveled. Since then much has been done in the country to improve the disaster response and prevention. As one person said, China is disaster prone with earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, typhoons and droughts a regular occurrence. Vice Premier Hui Liangyu admitted, “the disaster reduction situation is still arduous as various natural disasters are frequent in China.” In recent history, the government has shown consistent dedication to reform the nation’s disaster plan. Here, I take a look at new initiatives and, in particular, the effects of the Sichuan Earthquake on China’s disaster relief strategy.
The hierarchy of disaster relief starts with President Hu Jintao and trickles down to the regional government where a number of strategies are employed to meet each situation’s needs. China’s national disaster response plan has been evolving for at least a decade. In 2003 Wang Zhenyao, director of the Ministry of Civil Affair’s disaster relief bureau announced a move to revise disaster prevention and relief protocol across the board. The director said, “previously our focus was on the loss of people and housings, while ignoring the comprehensive picture across provinces. Now we have to be able to consider overall consequences if a disaster happens." According to an article in the American Chamber of Commerce, in 2004 both the Ministry of Civil Affairs and the State Disaster Reduction Commission wrote a set of guidelines for disaster relief which included, “emergency response plans at the national, departmental, provincial and municipal levels.” The importance of technology was taken into account for monitoring weather patterns and alerting the population to potential dangers as well as educating the public. In 2005 the State Council arranged a group of experts and academics to act as consultants for disaster relief. Among other improvements, these professionals launched a round the clock system for monitoring damage. In 2006, China met with the United Nations Development Programme to form the Disaster Risk Management: a system that would increase the partnership of government offices to assess risks. The American Chamber reports, “pilot programs in 10 communities across five disaster-prone areas provide community members with computers and information systems to monitor risks and communicate local conditions to central government authorities.”
The 2008 Sichuan Earthquake has continued the country’s revision of their disaster relief plans. One year after the national calamity, the government announced its continued efforts to improve disaster response. A white paper published on the anniversary details plans to increase the “state-level storage facilities for relief materials, such as tents, blankets, medicines and rescue devices, from 10 to 24 so that it will react faster in face of a serious disaster. The article states that local governments as well as rural and urban communities will be asked to participate in these plans, but ultimately every level of government will participate in this plan. A monitoring system will also be employed that covers land, sea, and space. Over 3 years between 2005 and 2008 the government spent 17.54 billion RMB (2.54 billion U.S. dollars) on improving and building disaster-proof housing, and more spending is sure to come. Laws are also being amended in light of recent natural disasters. Education and prevention are key elements to the new relief plans. The anniversary of the earthquake was also the first Disaster Prevention and Reduction Day which included relief drills.
China’s response to the earthquake has not been without its critics. Donations are an important part of disaster relief efforts, yet there were some reports during the Sichuan earthquake of donors having a hard time getting their donations through to intended receptacles, and more than 50% of donors in Beijing expressed concern over appropriate use of their money according to the Hauser Center. With 107 billion RMB (15.7 billion US) received in charitable giving for 2008, people naturally wanted to know that it was used properly. In response, the government published several guidelines on proper expenditure of donations including “Information Disclosure on the Management and Use of Wenchuan Earthquake Disaster Relief Funds”, “Notice on Enhancing Supervision of Disaster Relief Funds and Materials”, and “Guide to the Use of Wenchuan Earthquake Disaster Relief Funds.” A recent survey at Tsinghai University shows that 80% of donations received by the Chinese government for the Sichuan earthquake have not been delivered to disaster areas. Local government, consequently, has come under some criticism for their handling of the funds.
Another major criticism aimed at the government related to the effectiveness of the government’s response to disaster. In an article on China’s disaster relief operations, author Nirav Patel explains that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and central government have significant control over relief efforts. The article’s evaluation of the Sichuan earthquake explains that the PLA lacked coordination, particularly in air relief which hindered rescue efforts, delivery of supplies, and debris removal. In response to the inadequacies, the Chinese government called in international help. Of the more than 30 nations and international organizations that responded to the earthquake, several offered air relief help. Overall the international community has praised the government’s efforts. John Holmes, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator commended China’s response to the tragedy, “What was impressive, I think, was the way the Chinese authorities, local and centrally, responded to that, the speed with which they did that, the effectiveness with which they did that and I think also, the openness, which I think is worth mentioning, which was very much appreciated by the international community."
Responding to disasters as large as China has experienced is a task that requires efficiency and education for both the government and the public, as well as, international cooperation. China has shown their dedication to reducing preventable issues such as architectural design and increased technological monitoring systems. The government has also worked on developing its response with more stores, training, and equipment to deal with disaster effectively. Unfortunately, the ultimate test of a country’s disaster relief capabilities is a disaster. However, with the multitude of natural disasters that have plagued China in recent years, the government’s dedication to improve their response and to include international help is encouraging.