Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Perspective piece

First, Illinois Issues magazine has a new Web site! It's exciting because we're able to post audio, video, slide shows and discussion boards. We're continuing to improve it, but we hope the new site serves as a portal to the resources citizens need to make their own decisions.

Second, take a break from Illinois politics and consider this. Today marks the 19th anniversary of a historic student movement in China, where a communist government cracked down on student protesters in what's called the Tiananmen Square massacre. The country has been gradually changing ever since, and one of our own former reporters offers perspective on the evolving political culture from the Chinese point of view and from the American point of view.

Wen Huang is from China and participated in the 1989 student movement, but he now lives in Chicago as a journalist and author. It's also interesting that he started his journalism training the United States as a Public Affairs Reporting graduate student at the University of Illinois at Springfield, and he interned for Illinois Issues magazine in 1990-1991. We feature him in the June magazine (the article is in print only).

Shortly after we sent the magazine to the printer, devastating earthquakes struck China. Huang wrote a personal essay about the China earthquake published in the Chicago Tribune in mid-May. He shares thoughts about how the country's response to the devastation completely differed from its response to a 1970's earthquake. According to Huang, China's communist leadership back then tried to cover up news about the damage to avoid foreign aid — they feared western interference within the country. The leadership's response this time around demonstrates a much more liberated and open form of government. “As much as I feel saddened by the earthquake, I take great comfort in the realization that China is no longer what it was in 1976,” Huang writes.

His words relate to the book he recently translated, The Corpse Walker, which is a collection of interviews that reveal how China's political transitions affected ordinary citizens. It was written by Liao Yiwu, who was at the epicenter of China's earthquake last month.

Huang pulled together some notes about Liao and e-mailed them to us. He included some of Liao's own diary entries about the earthquake, which we share here:

By Wen Huang
Writer Liao Yiwu lives outside the city of Chengdu near the epicenter of the earthquake in Sichuan province. His home is about 17 miles from Dujiangyan, the hardest hit area where hundreds of children were trapped in a school. When the earthquake hit, he managed to run out of his apartment. Fortunately, his building didn't collapse though there are several giant cracks in the concrete stairway. For three days, as his area was threatened with aftershocks, Liao says he stays in an empty building without power and plays flute to pass the time.

Since most of the people he has interviewed for the book live in the epicenter, Liao has tried to contact them and he has not been successful. LIao said he feels guilty that he survived the earthquake but thousands of others have been killed. He wished he were there to help or at least to record the stories of survivors and rescuers. On Saturday, May 18, Liao managed to travel to the very epicenter, trying to see if he could help. He said the area has been cordoned off. But Liao managed to interview some survivors...He hopes to interview more survivors and have their stories published.

According to Liao, the government has done a good job in their rescue efforts. The fact that the government TV is now broadcasting news of the earthquake 24 hours non-stop has been reassuring. Liao is keeping a journal about the effects of the earthquake on his life and the lives of others. Here are some short excerpts:

Monday, May 12
I had just stepped into the residential compound, leisurely walking to my building. Suddenly, the earth under my feet began to shake, like a person suffering from epilepsy. The trees looked like a party of young people shaking their heads under the influence of herbal ecstasy. Because I was undernournished when I was a child, my brain is somewhat damaged - I am slow in responding to my surroundings. Initially, I didn't realize it was an earthquake until I saw that every building in my compound was vibrating.

I felt like a helpless child who has been suddenly tossed onto a swing. Then the speed of the swing accelerated to the point I couldn't stand still. I knelt on one leg and found myself sandwiched between two tall buildings. I struggled to get up, turned around mechanically, and ran away from the building as fast as my legs could carry me. Soon, I was followed by a crowd who had dashed out from different buildings … everyone was dazed and scared.

The epilepsy outburst lasted from two to three minutes. Then it stopped and things calmed down. I found myself surrounded by people, including my girl friend, who had run out of our 5th floor apartment.

About ten hours later, I contacted my sister Xiao Fei. She was trapped inside a seven-story office building in downtown Chengdu. The picture frames and artworks in her office were strewn on the floor, shattered. She said she felt like she had been tossed around inside a violently shaking colander. My writer friend Ran Yunfei was taking a nap at his 8th floor apartment. He was thrown off his bed. Then he ran out without any clothes on, dragging his quilt along behind him … Thank heavens, my family and my friends have made it through …

I feel guilty that I survived. As I watch those babies and students being pulled out from the debris, I want to cry. I wish I could be there helping, or at least recording their desperate cries and hear the stories from the brave rescue workers…

May 14, 2008
Most residents are still sleeping in tents outside the building. The aftershocks have been non-stop. I decide to take the risk and stay in because I'm afraid of the cold pouring rain, I hate the aimless wanderings and the possible prospect of an epidemic.

Power has been restored. I've been glued to the 24 hour news broadcast from the local TV station. A report about the situation in Qingcheng reminded me of Master Dengkuan, an abbot that I interviewed in 2003. His temple is only seven or eight miles away from Qingcheng. The TV reported that nearly all the residential houses in that region have been leveled. There is no mention of the thousand-year-old temple, which is built next to a mountain? The abbot suffered so much throughout his life. Before his passing in 2005, he had spent a decade restoring the temple. I hope the temple remains intact.

I also thought of the professional mourner. I interviewed him over ten years ago. He didn't even leave me his contact information because he never had a permanent home. If he were still alive, he would be in his 80s. If he is alive, I wonder if he has survived this disaster? His band used to travel between Beichuan and Jiangyou counties, where thousands of people have been killed during the past week. He spent his whole life crying and playing suona at other people's funerals. What's going to happen to him now?

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