The earthquake: I was running back to my apartment from the classroom for something, and didn’t feel a thing. The other foreign teacher here staggered out of her apartment and said she thought she was dying. I told her to put her head between her legs and I’d get a doctor. While I was racing back to the administration building all these people started pouring out of buildings. We had to sit in the sports ground in the sun for a couple of hours. Miss Universe turned up after a few minutes looking sheepish.
For the outside world, the Sichuan earthquake is news at a distance. Here the horror is very real of course. But for the flip of a coin there went us. The government has been quick off its arse this time, and there has been wall to wall coverage, so they have learned something from the mistakes of past stonewalling. People are beginning to notice though that the schools and hospitals collapsed in piles of jagged concrete and horribly squashed bodies while the government administration offices stood firm. That story is all too familiar. It seems reminiscent of the huge energy blackouts in Southern China earlier this year when tens of thousands of concrete electricity poles snapped like matchsticks under the snow. It turned out that since the early 1990s corrupt contractors hadn’t bothered to put steel reinforcement into the poles. The earthquake death toll might eventually run into many tens of thousands.
I suspect that the Chinese mood might turn rather darker after the Olympics since there are so many competing forces tending to blow this place apart. However, in a perverse way, the earthquake has probably helped many Chinese see a common interest with the old men in Beijing. On the other hand that could quickly sour as communities are faced with the loss of 4 million destroyed or unsafe apartments and public buildings. As always, a prophet in these latitudes has to be either a fool or have a book contract.
Mysterious text messages (in Chinese) keep dinging into my mobile, saying not to panic. Ostenibly they come from the telephone company. A couple of weeks ago the same source was advising me that it wasn’t really wise to demonstrate my patriotic outrage over foreign Olympic insults by picketing Carrefour (French hypermarket chain) and MacDonalds. Big brother is watching over us.