” China presses hush money on grieving parents,” according to New York Times
Parents of children killed in collapsed school buildings in the Sichuan earthquake have been offered cash settlements, relaxing of the birth quota and pensions by the local government. In exchange, they are pressured to sign a contract to give up demand for investigations into official negligence and corruption associated with the collapsed schools. Some parents have relented and signed the contract, while others have refused.
A while ago at the collective funeral for the victims at one of the schools with a large casualty, the grieving parents’ pain was so profound that some bite on their fingers and wrote their children’s names with a wish of a “good journey” in their blood on a piece of white cloth. The pain of losing a child can never be compensated with money. My discussion will focus on a cross-cultural understanding on the money in question. Is it correct to label the Chinese authorities’ offer to the grieving parents “hush money”, or even “compensation”?
Let’s start from the Western perspective. I cannot help wondering how this type of situations would be handled in America. Hush money is the off-the-shelf technique of governments and businesses (including the United States) to evade the non-financial (e.g., moral/legal) responsibilities for their wrongdoing. It goes together with an implicit admission of guilt. Wen-Ho Lee was kept in solitary confinement with his hands cuffed behind his back and the cell lights on 24 hours a day on false accusation of being a Chinese spy. He certainly deserved hush money from the US government. If you examine the role played by New York Times and other “free and fair” mainstream press on the poor sucker’s plight the case becomes even more enlightening and interesting. Steven J. Hatfill, the former Army biodefense researcher who was named as a “person of interest” in the mailed-in Anthrax cases got good hush money. Meanwhile, the US military is doling out hush money to Iraqi civilians they kill and maim in the war on terror. From the amount they hand out one can only assume that Iraqi lives and limbs are not worth much in the American book. Former congressman Garry Condit received a handsome compensation after suing the media for their unfair coverage on his role in the death of his extra-marital lover, Capitol Hill intern Chandra Levi. I just heard Wen-Ho Lee also cashed in on New York Times, who openly admitted inaccurate reporting, to put it mildly. A case more analogous to the Sichuan victims is a year ago a bridge in Minneapolis MN collapsed in broad daylight, without the faintest tremor from the earth, killing 13 people. Did those Minneapolis victims receive compensations from the US government, who is obviously responsible for maintaining the safety of the bridge?
Both the granting and denial of money in these examples demonstrate that in the west (at least America, which I am familiar with), financial compensation is a method of quantifying and commercializing the amount of damage one is responsible for. It carries an admission of guilt, although usually the contract would say “the US government admits no wrong doing”.
In the Chinese society, money is not a purely commercial vehicle, but serves as a social lubricant, in regulating closeness among people in different relations. When you get invited to a Chinese wedding, you are not supposed to show up with a token gift. Instead, you need to bring a red envelop, stuffed with crisp cash, with Chairman Mao’s bust printed on each bill. The giving of “congratulation money” is seldom anonymous. The giver’s (congratulator’s) name is on the envelope. At some wedding banquets there is “sign up poster” at the entrance. Each guest is supposed to write in his name, relation to the newly wed and the amount of financial contribution and type of gifts (real substantial useful stuff, don’t embarrass yourself with some cheap token gifts or a card). A public record is kept and displayed, not about the money, but about newly re-affirmed and regenerated relations. The same process applies with funeral, except in those occasions you would offer “consolation” or “sympathy” money. Financing the survivor does not mean that you have played a role in the death. It means that you care and are available to do your best to help the survivors move on with their lives. Again money is for the affirmation of a relationship commitment. The amount of money you give is a very delicate issue for both weddings and funerals, and must be calibrated according to your understanding of the current state of the relation, and your goal-state; do you want to get a step closer to the person at the receiving end?
I believe the Chinese authorities did not label the money they have offered the Sichuan victims “compensation”. They probably called it “consolation funds” or something in that nature. The portion of the contract quoted in NYT points to that direction. The problem in the handling of this case is that the authorities are sending mixed and contradictory messages. On the one hand, they offer consolation money to demonstrate their care and affirm their relation commitment. On the other hand they are mounting the pressure on the victims to swallow their loss and move on. Most problematic is the authorities’ clear distrust of the victims whom they are supposed to care for. This ambivalent attitude on the part of the authorities is dysfunctional and prevents the victims from achieving closure. The wound is kept open by the antagonism and suspicion. I am not in a position to speculate what is a better way to help the grieving parents achieve closure. But someone from the high authorities needs to sit down with them to discuss their concerns more thoroughly. If a fully open and transparent investigation is not forthcoming, how about an internal investigation led by the authorities with close supervision from the grieving parents? At least are there Xinhua reporters writing 内参 (internal memos) to the higher ups on this topic?
At a more abstract level of discussion, this case shows that the Chinese society is being tested on two traits, hardiness and resilience. Hardiness is the society’s ability to tolerate frustration and distress among its members (especially the under-privileged ones, like the Sichuan parents) without modifying its behavior. Hardiness manifests itself when the society is controlled with high pressure, suppression and punishment when its members’ interests conflict with its authorities. Trauma in individual lives is swallowed silently without recourse for justice. North Korea is an example of a society with impressive hardiness. With many citizens starving, the country has defied numerous predictions of collapse. The Chinese society is in a position to move beyond this stage of relying on hardiness for viability, to develop resilience, which is the ability to maintain a stable state (equilibrium) by constantly changing its behavior and structures. Resilience creates true social harmony.
The reason that with so many Chinese being treated unfairly the Chinese system still looks perfectly viable (if not harmonious) is that the hope for a better future is so enticing and realistic that it commands people’s attention; it makes more sense for most individuals to bite the bullet on this one (e.g., land grab with inadequate compensation) and move on than dwelling on the trauma, getting demoralized and giving up. The ability to keep the citizens’ hopes alive and create new aspirations is the key for resilience in the Chinese society. How can the Chinese society give the grieving parents in Sichuan compelling reasons to move on?