Asia Pacific / Social Issues

Once obscure Chinese town rallies after ship disaster

by Megha Rajagopalan

Reuters

Since being thrust onto the world stage, residents of a once obscure part of China have rallied round to help those affected by the sinking of a cruise ship, an outpouring of kindness in a country more used to worrying about a decline in public morals.

The 1.5 million people of Jianli, which sits on a bend of the mighty Yangtze River in the central province of Hubei, have offered free food, car rides and even hair-dressing services to the relatives, rescuers, officials and reporters who have rushed there after the ship carrying more than 450 people sank in a storm on June 1.

Residents have tied bright yellow scarves to their arms, car mirrors, buildings and gates to show solidarity with those impacted by the disaster.

“This is a way for us to show how much we care for those people, especially the families,” said a taxi driver surnamed Luo, who had festooned his own car with billowing scarves.

“This is such an incredible tragedy and we want to be of service to others however we can.”

A woman who asked only to be identified by her surname Wang is one of the organizers of an ad hoc group of volunteers who have fanned out through the city offering free meals, navigation help and other services.

“This is our duty to our country,” she said Thursday at a candlelight vigil for those killed in the shipwreck.

China’s economic boom and the growing disparity between the rich and poor have made changing social values a contentious topic, with some lamenting what they see as materialism replacing morals.

Barely a day goes by without soul-searching over what some see as a moral numbness — whether over graft, the rampant sale of adulterated food or incidents such as when a woman gouged out the eyes of her 6-year-old nephew in 2013 for unknown reasons.

Jianli’s efforts have attracted high-profile attention.

The website of the ruling Communist Party’s anti-corruption watchdog carried a series of comments from social media lauding taxi drivers for offering free rides to relatives “as soon as they hear a nonlocal accent.”

Large-scale disasters have prompted similar outpourings in the past.

After the massive 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed more than 80,000 people, residents of cities like provincial capital Chengdu loaded up their cars with drinking water and instant noodles for the survivors, many in remote rural parts.