Four weeks have passed since the city of Tainan experienced a shallow 6.4 magnitude earthquake that felled a seventeen-storey apartment block and killed many of the residents and the media have been doing the final totting up of all of the figures in preparation for putting the story into cold storage.
Nowadays, aftermaths are all about maths. The grim totals make easy headlines and easy work for lazy journalists who prefer to pander to sentimentality and see no duty to analyse, reason or to protect the public from the aftermath of the next inevitable natural or man-made disaster. In Taiwan, where the Chinese language defines all analysis as inharmonious, the sentimental is all that’s left to write about.
The curious thing about statistics is that the smaller the number, the greater seems to be its importance. Here are the maths:
116 people died. These souls were men women and children and many certainly died slowly, alone, in tiny orifices, waiting for the help that did not arrive in time. I’ll leave you to ponder that particular horror, which has kept me awake on a few nights since February 6th.
175 people were injured. Many of these remain in hospital, fighting for their lives. Quite a few emergency amputations were performed in the wreckage of the building so many of these injured souls have been maimed for life. That is no small thing in a society that puts all of its energy into its “face”. Imperfect bodies are not something that have a legitimate place in society here.
Countless hundreds of volunteer emergency workers helped. Many kept going for over seventy-two hours, non-stop, in the frenzy to rescue those who remained alive before their wounds claimed their lives. There are no specific figures for this group of volunteers and I have no seen no subsequent recognition of their efforts in any national media. Unlike the honoured heroes who entered the twin towers in 2001, these unsung heroes have been forgotten and will probably remain so. If there had been one or just a few, we would probably still be feting their undoubtedly heroic efforts.
That’s the end of the big numbers.
One man operated the company that built the building that collapsed. He gave the orders to use paint cans and polystyrene to save on the price of concrete, so the walls of the building collapsed long before they should have. This man will serve no time in prison. He will not even pay a fine. He has no responsibility to the people whom his building murdered. The building was built more than twenty years ago and the statute of limitations protects him from any prosecution or compensation claim. He was arrested, purely for show and probably illegally, and then released quietly so that he could lie low, literally until the dust settled.
He is a particularly unscrupulous individual who has been responsible for the construction ten large buildings in total. Each time he builds a new edifice, he immediately changes his name, so that he is not associated with any fallout from that project. He has had ten names in two decades. He will probably change his name again soon and begin the construction of yet another death-trap and nobody will do anything to stop him because any analysis of his activities would create what the Han define as disharmony.
The second statistic of one is the government that failed to monitor the construction of the building to ensure that building codes were obeyed. The same government also failed to inspect the building at regular intervals, to ensure that the construction was safe. There are regulations in place to make sure that this happens but anyone who has ever tried to persuade a Han person do anything knows that only brute force and cruelty will accomplish that particular task.
The city of Tainan had a huge earthquake in 1999, but the characteristics of that particular tremor were such that buildings of the weight, volume and height of the Golden Dragon building were relatively unaffected. This is not uncommon. In the great Mexico City earthquake of 1985, only building between three and five storeys were destroyed because the amplitude of the earthquake was particularly attuned to building of that height. The assumption that was made by local authorities was that any building that survived the big tremor was fine. This shows a total lack of understanding of the science of seismology. Again, anyone who has daily contact with Han people will readily tell you that the path to understanding is not nearly as important as showing off your ignorance.
As the focus of attention shifts away from the earthquake site, things are being allowed to return to normal. There can be no prosecution and the person who built the building cannot be stopped form building another just like it. The nation once again resigns itself to the fact that nothing can be done because Yuan Fen, or destiny, cannot be denied, changed or even questioned, because Chinese has no language to describe any perceived reality other than that which exists in each individual’s mind. Each of these minds conjures its own individual unquestionable destiny and the group reality of inevitable future devastation when the next big one hits is consigned to the bin marked “incomprehensible”.
One is the loneliest number and it should really be a part of the national flag here in Taiwan, where the particular loneliness and isolation that arises because meaningful communication in the Chinese language is all but impossible drives everyone into their own private superstitious bolt-hole and allows free rein for those who wish to exploit the societal void that is created. When Paul McCartney asked, “All the lonely people: where do they all come from?”, his eponymous antihero, Eleanor Rigby could not have imagined that so many of them in Han societies would actually choose the loneliness of individual superstitious isolation over the conceptual comfort of shared ideas. Taiwan and China are the last bastions of pure loneliness, where charitable effort that does not reap a financial reward goes unnoticed and where each individual ploughs a lonely furrow that is deep enough to completely obstruct the view of all of the other furrows that it studiously avoids.
The final statistic involves the number five.
Every disaster is a windfall for someone and the Chinese government was quick to use the situation to its advantage. Last October saw the timely and convenient “disappearance” of five Cantonese bookstore owners who were about to publish a book about an extramarital affair involving Xi Jing Ping, the Chinese president. Soon after the earthquake, at what Peter Mandelson would no doubt have described as an excellent time to release bad news, an email that was reported to have been sent by the vanishing quartet suddenly became public. The five reported themselves to be in good health, having having voluntarily disappeared without publishing their book. This week, they have appeared in Chinese TV, publicly admitting unspecified crimes against the state. This follows Xi Jing Ping’s tour of television studios last week, when he instructed all broadcasters to toe the Party line and is one of the many recent demonstrations of his nervousness about the upcoming economic recession that is about to hit China.
Mr. Xi made a recent state visit to the UK, where he no doubt picked up a few pointers on media management for the spin-doctors in the British Conservative Party, most of whom learned their craft at the feet of Mr. Mandelson.
The man who constructed the Golden Dragon building, the Taiwanese government and Mr. Xi all seem to be in agreement: the needs of the few, or the one, outweigh the needs of the many, as Mr Spock would never have said.