Talking Point

The day the world shook

Quake sees Chinese respect for Japan rise but faith in nuclear power fall

Rapid response: China sent a rescue team to Japan......

Earthquakes are powerful events: not only for the damage they wreak to roads and buildings, but also in how they can transform public opinion. Recall in 2008 the negative tone of the Western media as Chinese representatives carried the Olympic flame around the world. Criticism of China’s human rights record culminated in the cancelling of the torch relay in Paris, when thousands turned out to protest. But just six days later anti-Chinese sentiment disappeared. Sichuan province had been struck by a massive earthquake, killing an estimated 90,000.

That tragedy changed the mood. And something similar seems to have happened in China itself last Friday, when an even more devastating earthquake struck Japan.

What was the initial reaction?

Before we get to that, it should be said that Chinese attitudes towards Japan are complex and – generally speaking – negative. There’s a long history of acrimony (see WiC14), with events from the Second World War still a raw topic (and kept that way by school textbooks). The Nanjing Massacre in particular, and the lack of what is deemed an appropriate apology from Tokyo, remain sore points.

Indeed, relations between the two states hit a fresh low last September (see WiC78) after clashes over a disputed group of islands, known to Chinese as the Diaoyu and to Japanese as the Senkaku. Beijing cut diplomatic ties and put a block on the sale of rare earth metals after a Chinese trawler captain was arrested by Japanese coast guard near the islands.

Relations were then patched up (the Japanese government repatriated the Chinese sailor) but the issue has not gone away. Last week tensions threatened to escalate again, when another Chinese fishing boat sailed into the Diaoyu area.

So when the earthquake hit, a lot of the more nationalist elements in China initially greeted it with callous euphoria. Top local search engine Baidu saw a spike in traffic Friday afternoon with the phrase ‘celebration of Japan’s earthquake’ typed by 8.48 million, according to popular blogger Shangguan Yiying.

Then a backlash…

But widely-read bloggers like Shangguan (using the Twitter-like service, weibo) quickly expressed their disgust at such sentiment. For example, Zhang Lifen (whose blog has 64,500 followers) wrote: “As for those fellow citizens ‘celebrating Japan’s earthquake’, I can only say our patriotic education is too successful; to those who say Japan’s earthquake is purely retribution, I just want to say, do not forget that only two provinces in China are outside the earthquake belt. Humanity’s greatest sin is loss of empathy!”

Wang Xiaoshan (167, 690 followers) agreed that people typing the ‘celebration’ phrase into Baidu were “devoid of humanity” and Lan Ruoqian (56,738 followers) recalled the Sichuan earthquake and how Japan had sent aid. “The Japanese rescue team kneeled in pain when they failed to save people. Two years later, seeing a large number of Chinese people gloating over Japan’s misfortune, I suddenly think how can we save the soul of the majority of China’s population?”

TV changes the mood…

The images of the devastation (brought about both by the quake and the resulting tsunami) shocked television viewers around the world.

Chinese television stations also gave the crisis rolling coverage – relying like their counterparts from elsewhere on footage from Japan’s NHK. The fast-moving nature of the tragedy meant that live, unfiltered pictures were broadcast, and as the saying goes, they were worth a thousand words. As Chinese audiences watched how Japan was coping with the crisis, they began to express respect for the intrinsic strength of Japanese society.

Weibo comments were soon discussing what China could learn from Japan. The nation’s orderly, manner and organisation have impressed. A blogger (using the moniker Hot Movie) gave a detailed analysis, which was forwarded 238,000 times. He marvelled that Suntory had made its vending machines free of charge; that Japanese were clearing squares of garbage unprompted; that women and children were receiving the help of others; that during evacuations the population stood in an orderly fashion on both sides of the road so as not to hold up traffic.

Or staircases: where Japanese sat on either side, but left the middle free for their compatriots to pass. “This is the result of education,” he said of a society behaving calmly in a time of crisis. He also gave an example from a school: “When the earthquake’s intensity became larger, the teacher ordered the students to immediately hide under the table. When the quake reduced, she asked them to flee. But she was the last to leave the room and turned off the lights.”

The school situation, in fact, became a direct source of comparison with China’s own earthquake in 2008.

In Sichuan, official data shows that 5,300 children died when shoddily constructed schools collapsed after the 7.9 quake began. Corrupt officials and contractors were blamed. In Japan, on the other hand, many ran into schools knowing they were sturdily constructed.

Nor is the situation in China any better today, it would seem. Indeed, during a 5.8 quake last week in Yunnan province, 15 schools were again “severely damaged”, according to CCTV.

All in all, weibo users have drawn some interesting inferences from the tragedy in Japan. Liu Wenyi pointed out that while the “life of a government in Japan is shorter than that of a mosquito”, the response to the quake shows “a stable country has nothing to do with a stable government”.

That’s a contention that senior Party officials in Beijing will no doubt disagree with…

Nuclear consequences…

If an improved awareness of Japan’s strengths is an unexpected outcome of the disaster, the Chinese will also draw another conclusion: the potential dangers of nuclear power. The accident at the Fukushima facility has reignited the debate over China’s own nuclear energy programme. Currently the country gets only 2% of its power from uranium-based sources, but China plans to build 40 new nuclear plants, which by 2020 will give it a capacity of 100 million kilowatts.

As mentioned earlier, earthquakes have occurred in most of China’s provinces, making Japan’s current experience all the more alarming.

But while netizens were quick to express their own fears, the initial government line was to insist that China’s newer third generation technology rendered comparisons meaningless. The AP1000 nuclear power reactors currently under construction in China’s coastal areas and set to be promoted in its vast hinterland are Generation III reactors, reported Shanghai Daily. The reactors are cooled by water stored in massive tanks. In times of emergency, gravity draws water from the tanks to cool the reactor’s core. “It’s just like a flush toilet, no power is needed,” said Lu Qizhou, general manager of China Power Investment Corp.

Zhang Lijun, the vice-minister of the Department of Environmental Protection stated as recently as Monday, “We will learn some lessons from Japan, but we will not change our determination nor our development plans for the nuclear industry.”

That stance began to change as the situation at Fukushima continued to deteriorate.

Approvals suspended for now…

Yesterday, the media was reporting that Beijing had halted approvals on new nuclear power construction.

The South China Morning Post described it as a surprise move. “Until the [new] nuclear safety plan is approved, we will suspend approvals of new plants including those in the pre-development phase,” the State Council said. “We must fully understand the urgency and importance of nuclear safety.”

The Financial Times noted that the announcement effectively put “the brakes on a development programme that accounts for almost 40% of the world’s planned reactors”.

Meanwhile the State Council also said that “comprehensive checks” were being employed at existing facilities to close safety loopholes.

In Hong Kong, attention turned to the Daya Bay plant on Guangdong’s coast, about 60km away. Daya is also a second generation plant like Fukushima. But Professor Woo Chung-ho of Polytechnic University told the SCMP that Daya Bay’s containment walls were thicker, and of a design that should ensure there was more time to cope with a radiation leakage similar to the Fukushima crisis.

Other ramifications?

China’s suspension of its nuclear programme will put pressure on the country’s ambitions to reduce its carbon footprint. Nuclear was supposed to help wean the country’s power stations off their reliance on coal. But without this alternative source of energy China’s output of greenhouse gases is likely to surge in the coming decades. That puts Beijing’s leaders in a quandary, which is probably why Lin Baoqiang of Xiamen University’s China Energy Research Centre says it’s too early to tell if the government’s long term nuclear strategy will change. China is already well advanced down the nuclear power path: the FT reports that construction has already started on 27 nuclear plants.

Is the nuclear crisis complicating Chinese views on Japan’s earthquake response?

Certainly, in the days immediately after the quake, much of the Chinese discussion centred on how ordinary Japanese had coped so admirably. But as the week progressed, and the situation at Fukushima escalated, a more critical note has resurfaced – directed mostly at the handling of the affair by the government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company. Respect for Japan’s early crisis management skills has given way to more critical comment, especially on a perceived shortfall in communication. “We hope the Japanese side will release information, as well as its evaluation and prediction of the situation, to the public in a timely and precise manner,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters.

The Global Times also wrote in an editorial: “During the first few days, government information disclosure about the nuclear leakage was neither comprehensive or true, which later led to a certain panic and to discontent among the media.” As the nuclear crisis worsened, strains were showing too. The Japanese may have remained calm at the start, but “later snapped up food and water reserves,” said the newspaper, indicating increasing panic.

But its conclusion was still that China can learn much from Japan. “Objectively speaking, Japan’s housing is stronger, its national emergency education is better and its people’s reaction to disasters are more orderly, which we already knew and has been confirmed during this latest tragedy. By observing Japan, we can know China’s distance from developed society.”


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