Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Rising Tide

The other night I finally got around to watching Blind Shaft, the Chinese film set in the corrupt and deadly coal mining industry. I'd heard "Blind Shaft" described as a sort of modern Chinese noir, and that description is not without merit. The film looks at the underside of the "Chinese miracle," much as American noir films looked at the dark side of America in the post-war era, but with a gritty documentary realism. Director and writer Li Yang portrays a China where the rich exploit the poor, the poor exploit each other, and the only bonds that have a hope of transcending one's own self-interest are those with immediate family. Everything else has been blasted apart by the wrenching social changes and bloody history of the recent past. The only real optimism one can take from "Blind Shaft" is that the same society which has created these Darwinian conditions is also capable of producing a clear-eyed, unsentimental and sharp-witted critique of its own failings.

I thought about "Blind Shaft" when I read a wrenching article in today's Los Angeles Times about a flood in Northern China that killed more than half of the students in a small town elementary school. According to residents, more than two hundred children died. And as is so often the case in such tragedies, the deaths, say the parents, should not have happened at all:
In China, deadly floods are an annual plague. This year's rainy season, which began in May, claimed more than 200 lives in southern China and affected millions before the school tragedy. Now, citizens in Shalan and elsewhere are questioning whether the government has taken adequate precautions...

...Parents interviewed by phone said that about 40 minutes before the water hit the school, someone in a village upriver had tried to call and warn Shalan of the impending flood. But no one answered the phone at the school. The person who picked up at the town office said he was too busy to do anything about it. Another call went to the local police station. The officers were out on duty.

"The teacher, the principal, everybody has a cellphone. They could have easily warned the children," said a 36-year-old woman who gave only her surname, Zeng. Her 11-year-old son survived by running out of the classroom and wading in the river until his parents came. Three of their neighbors' sons didn't make it.

"Why didn't they do anything?" she asked. "Are these people human?"

By the time help arrived, most of the parents had fished their children out of the blackened water. Angry villagers said local officials had not only failed to lend a hand, they had stood in the way.

As parents raced to the school on motorbikes, police officers stopped some to issue fines for permit violations.

"If they didn't block the motorbikes, more parents could have gotten to the school on time to help the teachers save the children," Zeng said.

When the police chief came, he just stood there and watched, said Zeng's father-in-law, who gave only his surname, Zhang.

"He wore a life jacket," Zhang said. "One parent asked if he could borrow it. He said no. The parent jumped into the water without it."

According to the official New China News Agency, the town's Communist Party and police chiefs are under investigation for allegedly failing to organize a timely rescue.

What really shocked parents was that while some teachers risked their lives to help their students, others climbed to higher ground and abandoned the young.

"There is only one little girl left in the first grade," said Sun Xiuqin, the mother of the 10-year-old boy who survived. "When we got there, we saw their teachers standing on the roof. Those were 7- and 8-year-olds. How could they have fended for themselves?"

In some ways, the parents had known this was a disaster waiting to happen. The school sits on low ground. When the campus was reconstructed several years ago, it was supposed to be a two-story structure, but only one floor was built. Villagers believe officials pocketed the rest of the money.

When the local reservoir overflowed, the water rushed down the river toward the school. It filled up like a tank. The original playground might have been large enough to hold the excess water, but it had shrunk after teachers built new homes on the plot. They stood like a wall and helped trap the floodwater.

"It's like the school sat at the bottom of a wok. There's no way for the water to get out," Sun said. "The parents are devastated. Most of us have only one child. The police, government officials, if they cared enough, so many children wouldn't have to die."
It's a story we've heard so many times: corruption, cowardice, passing the buck, a lack of caring for anyone other than one's own. But if there's any hope to be taken from a story like this, it's that we even know about it. That these parents, in their grief and anger, have demanded that their story be told. That they know this should not have happened. And that implicit in these sentiments, is the belief that their children deserved far better.

"Blind Shaft," by the way, is officially banned in China. But I was able to buy it in a Beijing DVD store last year, where it was openly displayed...

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