For people from the better-off provinces like Li Xupeng and other aid team members, the experience of participating in rebuilding Wenchuan gave them a rare opportunity to rediscover the nation’s vast west. Li joked that it pit him in bitter competition with his colleagues to join the reconstruction mission, because so many people applied.
During his days in Wenchuan he was impressed with the strategic significance of the west and its role as the headwater of major rivers in the nation. "It is in the nation's strategic interest to rebuild and rejuvenate the western regions. Though life is hard here, local people are doing all they can for the nation. I think the rest of China is obliged to help them."
Zhang Tong, another Zhuhai cadre at the Aid Work Panel, said the aid program reeducated participants on the notion of "nation." He went on to suggest that "aid" might not be the proper word to use, because what the east is doing for the west is like a family working on its own backyard.
At the 2009 Spring Festival when the Aid Work Panel distributed New Year goodies in Miansi, local residents burst into chants of "Long live the Communist Party! Long Live Zhuhai." The compliments sounded strange to people from a city like Zhang Tong, because most Zhuhai citizens are immigrants, and few would identify themselves as Zhuhaiers. But as inhabitants from a town in another province, they, for the first time, shared an identity, one that commands esteem among locals. This understanding was reinforced one day when Zhang Tong went to buy adhesive tape in Miansi. The store keeper refused his money: "You are from Zhuhai. I'll give you this tape, but I won’t sell it to you."
Learning is two way
Sharing his impression of aid work done by eastern provinces, a Wenchuan official singled out the efficiency. "When we say right now, we mean a couple of hours; but for Guangdong people, right now is in a couple of minutes."
Xu Minggui, chief of the engineering coordination section of the Guangzhou Aid Work Panel, agreed that the east brought more than materials to the west. "There is both a confluence and a clash of thinking and habits."
Guangzhou is the donor partner to Weizhou Town, the county seat of Wenchuan. From the very beginning there was an awareness that the aid projects would not yield the desired results until sound management practices could take hold.
Reconstruction is teamwork, involving both aid teams from Guangzhou and the town authority in Weizhou. A pace setter in the Chinese economy, Guangzhou is known for its fast pace and exacting standards in the workplace. In contrast, Sichuan people are by nature unhurried and carefree. Aid workers from Guangzhou received a warm welcome and can-do responsiveness in the early days of their work in Weizhou. But locals were soon bored and worn down. "We had to do a lot of persuading, making the local government understand it is supposed to handle the admittedly onerous paperwork and assume oversight of the operation once we finish the construction of infrastructure," recalled Xu Minggui. Local officials eventually regained their enthusiasm for whirling about at the heels of these workaholic Guangzhou guys.
Xu never complaints about the disparity in work styles. The county and town governments in Wenchuan have their own troubles. Many areas don't have the resources to establish particular and dedicated organs for the reconstruction effort, and are further crippled by a dire shortage of equipment and manpower.
Once a journalist asked a deputy magistrate of Wenchuan, "What if Guangzhou just provided the funds and left the reconstruction to be done by local government?" The official replied: "We would not have made it this far without their involvement. Watching the way they did the job, we realized our weaknesses, and learnt to improve our management techniques."
In the past, meeting decisions in Wenchuan often ended up in a closed loop due to lack of forceful implementation and strong supervision. The high efficiency of Guangzhou people awakened the local government to set up a monitoring system and evaluating mechanism. "I can see the changes in local officials," confirmed Xu Minggui contently.
In spite of the zigzags in their perception of each other and the reconstruction work, the fraternity between Guangdong and Wenchuan has never diminished. The feeling of Jiang Zhihui of Miansi Town finds an echo in every local heart: "They treat us like brothers, lending a helping hand in many things we are supposed to do on our own."
Zhang Tong thought the aid program a stimulant for interaction between the east and the west, and one which will deliver long-term benefits for the nation. "The impact of the program will ferment, going beyond the town, a county or province."