“Two Words: Save Lives”

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The aftershock everyone feared last night didn’t happen. There was a small one of magnitude 5.2 just before 2 a.m., but I haven’t heard any reports of significant damage.

I’ve posted some more video above of our trip to Yingxiu. This shows what’s left of a raised section of highway leading into the town. It has fallen twisted to the ground, like the remains of a ribbon cutting ceremony. The clip is shot from the window of a PLA jeep. Lin was able to get us a ride out with some high ranking officers from the Chengdu military command. As we crept along the road out of the destroyed city, troops doing repair work stopped to salute, and the officer in our vehicle waved back.

It was the most time I’d spent in close proximity with the PLA. Militaries are secretive by nature, and the Chinese are exceptionally so. At the Foreign Ministry’s annual New Year cocktail party the attending officers have been known to wave away reporters, apparently in denial that the point of the whole exercise is for foreign journalists to meet government representatives. The officer we rode with wouldn’t accept an interview, but chatted openly about the relief work.

Earlier that day in Yingxiu, as I walked along the river bank into the encampment just outside the city, I met two soldiers who asked my opinion of the relief work. I told them that I thought it was impressive. “We just want to show you that we are not frightening,” one of them told me. It made me think of the last time I had any extended contact with the Chinese military. That was during a briefing to a group of foreign reporters in Beijing, when an officer said that the Chinese military should consider hitting the U.S. with nuclear weapons. “Frightening” was one of the words that came to mind during that exchange.

Now there seems to be a concerted effort to put a more humane face on the military. When the vehicles dropped us off another officer came over to tell me that he wanted an objective report. “We are here for one reason only. It’s just two words: save lives,” he said.

For the past year everyone has called the Beijing Olympics China’s “coming-out party.” I’m beginning to wonder if the adjectives, if not the noun, are more suitable to the earthquake. It is as far from a party as you can get, but from the volunteer efforts to the government response to the official openness, I’ve seen China coming out in ways I never expected.