Last May 12th and for a month afterwards, most of China's populous Sichuan Province shook as a huge fault deep under a mountain range began to move. Tens of millions were displaced, 80,000 died and 230,000 were injured. Among the dead and injured were 5000-7000 students at a number of flimsily built schools which collapsed.
The Chinese Government's response, under Premier Wen JiaBao, an engineer, was remarkably open to allowing news media access to quake areas and quake victims; the Government invited foreign relief groups (NGOs) and international firms working in China to participate in the relief and recovery effort.
I was part of an unusual delegation set up by the Business Roundtable in Washington, DC: 7 major corporate leaders from companies like Honeywell, Johnson & Johnson, Proctor & Gamble, Cisco, Merck and Chevron flew to China and along with 3 major American NGOs (Operation USA, World Vision and the American Red Cross) and representatives of the US Government including Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, USAID Administrator Henrietta Fore and senior officials from the US Treasury and Department of Commerce. The US Chamber of Commerce also traveled with the group.
The Chinese Government made a huge effort to be inclusive and available to the group of senior level officials of every government agency which had anything to do with the relief and recovery effort. The American corporate representatives, for their part, knew that they were expected to make more than a symbolic commitment to helping people recover their lives and livelihoods. With a $150 billion Chinese Government reconstruction budget however, there was no need for massive amounts of US funding. There was an expectation of and need for "smart aid"-- training Chinese in disaster preparedness, providing seismic engineers in the rebuilding, and taking on small, well targeted projects with advanced technology like the Honeywell "Three Villages United Primary School" outside Chengdu.
The Honeywell school had its pre-opening shakedown week starting yesterday on the First Anniversary of the Quake; on May 21, senior level Chinese officials, Honeywell's China CEO and the CEO of Operation USA (the NGO which built the school with Honeywell funds and technologies) gather in the small village of Nonglian, 2 hours drive west from Chengdu, to celebrate the opening of this new school. The three schools of Nonglian and two neighboring villages were destroyed by the Quake.
Small steps to be sure but steps in the direction of the development of civil society institutions in China, of openness to international aid (and ideas!), and of corporate social responsibility by US companies in China.