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China Quake

05/27/08 7:55AM By Chris Wren
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(HOST) Commentator Chris Wren is a former reporter and editor for the New York Times. During the recent devastating earthquake he was in China - as host of VPR's China trip.

(WREN) We felt it in Xian, a city several hundred miles northeast of the quake's epicenter in Sichuan province.  We were leaving a local restaurant through an adjacent store, when its wares skittered off the counters and clattered onto the floor. We followed the staff rushing downstairs into the bright sunlight and relative safety of the open yard. Around the city, others fled their buildings to collect on the streets, where they spent the rest of the day and much of the night.  

As we traveled on through China, the emerging statistics defined the scope of its worst natural disaster in three decades. More than fifty thousand Chinese dead; tens of thousands more missing in the rubble. Hundreds of thousands injured. And five million people left without a home.     

Our engaging tour guide, Yong Liu, lives in Sichuan. He knew first-hand the devastated area. His wife was safe, but he had no word about the fate of friends. And when we parted ways at the airport in Shanghai, Liu, an expert mountain climber, prepared to fly home to join the rescue operation. I expect that our young friend is out there now, combing the back country for survivors.     

As we headed home, a couple of thoughts struck me. Having worked in China as a journalist for more than three years, I was still trying to absorb the dazzling changes that had transformed a bleak Maoist state into a vigorous market economy with a growth rate of 12 percent last year. But the quake heralded potentially deeper changes.     

For one thing, the Chinese government has been forced to operate more openly. In the old days, disaster was something to be concealed from the rest of the world. But now China's leaders rushed in to see the damage first-hand and comfort the victims, unlike our President after Hurricane Katrina. Local newspapers and radio and TV stations vied to provide non-stop coverage. For another, ordinary Chinese seized a rare opportunity to assert control over their lives. Volunteers streamed into the affected areas without waiting for permission from the Communist Party, often paying their own expenses. Others collected funds for the victims. A television extravaganza hosted by celebrities raised 200 million dollars for earthquake relief in a single night.  How can the government bottle up this new activism, when cell phones and the Internet leave no time for censorship?     

In Shanghai, we joined its 20 million residents in three minutes of silence to mourn the earthquake victims. Traffic stopped. People on the sidewalk bowed their heads and sometimes wept. It was happening all over China, and we were invited to join in.     

After the concluding sirens ended the silent grieving, some young Chinese came up, tears in their eyes, to say, in English, a simple, "Thank you."  They were grateful that we shared their grief and that the sirens wailed for us too.
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