For this week’s edition of Opinionist, we present to you some of the thoughts of Ho Kwon Ping, founder and executive chairman of the Banyan Tree Group which owns and operates a chain of award-winning premium resorts, hotels and spas, surrounding the great Sichuan earthquake. Ho, who owns resorts in Lijiang, Shangri-La and Sanya, had a close shave with the earthquake as his flight from Chengdu to Hong Kong was almost taking off when the earthquake struck.
In the days of his youth, Ho was a political radical who was thrown out of Stanford University for protesting against eugenics and Vietnam. Later, he was jailed two times in Singapore for articles he wrote as a journalist for the Far Eastern Economic Review. Since then he has grown to become one of the city-state’s most admired entrepreneurs, wealthiest individuals and respected thinkers. Ho wears many corporate hats, including Chairman of Singapore Management University; Chairman of MediaCorp Pte Ltd, the national television and radio company; Board Director of Air Seychelles; and member of the INSEAD International Council.
THE woman a few rows behind me had become hysterical. We had been locked inside the packed aircraft for over six hours. Every time someone made occasional phone or SMS contact, there would be loud cries of relief or wails of sorrow.
The Chengdu-Hong Kong flight was readying for take-off when we were rocked from side to side. The plane then came to an abrupt halt. There has been an earthquake, the captain said. The entire airport was evacuated and we were abandoned in the middle of the runway.
As afternoon turned to night, and desperation built up inside our small cabin, news trickled in of the scale of the Sichuan earthquake. The realisation that we had missed almost-certain death by a minute or so – when the aircraft would be careening down the runway and unable to stop – sank in slowly.
The day before I had trekked through a mountain plateau in Jiuzhaigou, China’s first and most popular national park. It was a summer day and entire village families had come out to enjoy the sunshine, folk dancing and a whole goat roasted on a spit. A month before that I had been at Dujiangyan, at the foothills of Qinchengshan, one of Taoism’s most revered mountains, dotted with ancient temples.
Trapped inside the aircraft, I could only try to fight despair through intermittent SMSes with my probably even more anxious family. But we didn’t know the magnitude of the disaster then. Its scale – and its impact on China – only gradually emerged over the next few weeks.
Like the Asian tsunami, this earthquake is very personal to me. I had visited the tsunami-affected areas and had tried to help in the recovery of devastated communities. But the tsunami, while far more tragic in its scale of lost lives, did not mark a watershed in the societies which it hit. Eventually, life returned to normal – Sri Lanka went back to its civil war, Thailand and Indonesia to their Byzantine politics.
The Sichuan earthquake is different. It came at probably the most critical juncture in Chinese history for decades. With the Olympics and the Tibetan riots already bringing about changes in both the external perception of China as well as in its self-conception, the earthquake will accelerate changes in Chinese society.
China in 2008 is at an inflexion point. Twenty years of unrelenting economic growth have created a new social order. It can at best be called post-communist – not the liberal capitalist democracy Americans would like to see, but unrecognisable to Mao Zedong and even Deng Xiao-ping. But this new social order with its contradictions, had been inchoate, unexpressed till now.
The aftermath of the earthquake has created socio-political aftershocks that are continuing to reverberate across the country long after the geological shocks have passed – and may be the tipping point for a new China.
In the spontaneous outpouring of volunteerism, not only relief and student organisations, but even state journalists reported without – rather than against – central approval. Henceforth, political life in China will be characterised not so much by overtly dissident political groups but by non-governmental organisations (and bloggers) of all stripes who will simply operate outside – rather than against – the system.
American neo-cons will be disappointed that this will not lead to the overthrow of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but the party’s monopoly over every facet of Chinese life is giving way to a more civil society. China may not become a parliamentary democracy, but it is already becoming a plural society with a Chinese face.
Having meticulously planned for the Olympics as the ultimate coming-of-age party for China to join the ranks of modern, global powers, Beijing was caught off guard by the Lhasa riots and ensuing debacles over the Olympic torch relays. The wavering between hardline and more liberal responses exposed the uncertainties of a leadership anxious to not repeat the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, but equally unsure whether a more liberal, modern form of governance would lead to the eventual downfall of the CCP.
The unprecedented and spontaneous enthusiasm which greeted Premier Wen Jiabao’s response to the disaster – which foreign observers cynically dubbed ‘Western-style politicking’ – was a political tipping point. It cemented the leadership’s incipient perception of itself as a modern government moving towards liberalisation, transparency and greater popular participation in governance.
Watching all this unfold, I remarked to a friend that the top-down Confucian mandate of heaven is becoming Rousseau’s two-way social contract. Legitimacy will no longer be based on authoritarian decree, but on a mutually consensual relationship.
I also found some Chinese friends, previously preoccupied with attaining wealth and displaying it through conspicuous consumption, proud and yet humbled by the national response to the tragedy.
The post-Cultural Revolution spoilt, single-child, urban generation had been careening towards an existential angst caused by its relentless pursuit of material goods. The sudden realisation of enormous tragedy amidst stoic poverty, in a world which people in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and other rich cities found almost alien, was a cathartic event. All China seemed to realise that the rediscovery and celebration of its humanism lay in its collective response to the disaster.
One critic of his own generation told me that Chinese humanism will find its renaissance through this tragedy. Civilisations take centuries to collapse and re-emerge – if ever. China’s slow decline began some 300 years ago, and reached its nadir with the humiliation of the Opium War. China is now an economic power but it will recover the civilisational prominence it once had by discovering its humanism.
None of these thoughts was going through my mind as it fought fatigue, stale air and mounting desperation as day turned into night. But I do recall, once our plane finally took off – risking a damaged runway and damaged undercarriage which I dared not think about – thinking one single thought.
We will return soon to Dujiangyan, I resolved. And build in some garden a statue of the mythical phoenix, symbol of resurrection and renaissance.
This article first appeared in the Straits Times.