I stepped off my plane at the new Beijing Capital International Airport and into a country where 1.3 billion people had come to a standstill. Sirens wailed. Flags flew at half-mast. China was stopping to honor the lives lost in the Wenchuan earthquake although there would still be thousands rescued from the rubble for another week. I lectured at five different teacher-training universities in the day. And each night we watched the disaster unfold. At the end of two weeks, I returned to the United States to find that American reporters had completely missed the heart of this story. China’s response to this disaster centered around education: their respect for technical specialists, their value of study-ethic, their total investment in their children.
Premier Wen Jiabao was put in charge of the rescue effort not just because he was Premier, but because he was trained in geomechanical engineering and had studied at the Beijing Geological Institute. Everyone seemed to know this. The public had confidence that his decisions would be the right technical decisions, made with the head and not with the heart.
The devastation was massive. The Wenchuan earthquake left over five million people standing unprotected. No homes. No business buildings. And no schools. Although the actual area is half the size of Kansas, China is densely populated and five million equals the total population of Kansas and Nebraska! The President and Premier visited the tent-making factories to ensure the resources to work around the clock. In two weeks, China delivered and erected over 900,000 large blue tents for housing in the earthquake region. But priority for the more durable pre-fabricated buildings went to schools.
In America, our response to an earthquake on May 12 would have been to tell our schoolchildren to come back next August. Not in China. Students graduating from high school were about to sit for the all-important leaving exam that determines if they can enter college, and is the biggest factor in the quality of their future life. They will still take those exams, postponed slightly, but not canceled. The cut-point would not be lowered. But the best universities in China increased their quota for students from the earthquake region and for the children of rescuers. Within a week, many of the surviving students were back in the classroom. Child psychologists were brought in from across the country to work with the traumatized youngsters. The count of orphans approached 5500.
Many senior high schools (erroneously reported as “middle schools” in the U.S.) collapsed, killing teachers and students instantaneously. Not all students enter high school; about half were eliminated by an exam between junior and senior high school. The large number of high school students killed in the earthquake that struck at 2:28 in the afternoon, were their best students. Their hope. Their future.
The country saw that surviving students had nothing; no books, no pencils, no paper. A campaign sprang up to buy large numbers of varied backpacks and fill them with school supplies and truck them to Szechuan. Within a few days, in news footage of restoring water and electricity, you could see students in the background, going to school with new backpacks. But there were not enough teachers to restore all local schooling. Many parents said goodbye to their schoolchildren as the students got on trains to travel across country to live and go to schools in Chongqing to the south, and Fujian and Shanghai in the east.
A children’s television channel produced a brief cartoon showing how the earthquake happened, how the army and other rescuers were rushing to save people. It showed pain and tears and sadness, but also doctors and nurses and survivors and smiles. This helped pre-school children across the country, who were sensing their parents distress, to understand.
College campuses across China held candlelight vigils and fund drives. Singers and movie stars held aid concerts. By the time I left, the people of China had contributed over US$4 billion dollars for relief.
The window for rescuing people was also over, and efforts turned to recovery and re-building. For children who had lost one or both parents, sometimes all of their extended family, the leadership echoed the culture’s expectation: you can best honor your lost loved ones by studying harder, working harder, and rebuilding a better China.
One simple photo, a little girl survivor holding a bowl of rice and smiling, caught the hearts of everyone. It became a symbol of hope and recovery...and time to move on.
Her image, I will never forget.
John Richard Schrock trains biology teachers and lives in Emporia. From May 18 to June 1, 2008 he lectured at Yangzhou, Qufu Normal, Shangdong Normal, Chongqing Normal and Beijing Normal Universities.