[Viewpoint]The need to know

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[Viewpoint]The need to know

I spent last weekend in the provincial city where my parents live. On the bookshelves of their living room, I found books that I read during my college years. I probably left them at my parents’ when I was drafted for the military.
Among the faded covers, I found “Idol and Reason,” by Rhee Yueng-hui, a book that still inspires people’s thinking even today. It is a collection of critical essays by Rhee, now 79, published in 1977. When grouped with Rhee’s “Logics of Conversion” and “Dialogue with 800 Million People,” the set of books dominated the era.
Among my comrades in the “living alone club” who read the books together in a shantytown, some later served prison terms.
An earthquake similar in magnitude to the one that hit Sichuan Province in China a few days ago rocked Tangshan in Hebei Province at 3:42 a.m. on July 28, 1976. The city of 1 million was destroyed. The official death toll was 252,419, and another 164,581 were seriously injured.
Idol and Reason compared that disaster with the July 1977 blackout in New York and did not hesitate to praise the Chinese people’s attitudes. “How humans behave when they face an unexpected event of irresistible force reveals the principal nature of their society,” the book said, quoting a newspaper article contributed by the Japanese ambassador, who visited Tangshan shortly after the earthquake.
“They acted orderly in every situation. Commotion and selfish behavior that hurt others were not observed... I shiver when I think about how the Japanese would act if a disaster of this magnitude took place in a major city in Japan and how the community’s group mentality would reveal itself,” the Japanese ambassador wrote at the time.
Rhee’s writing about the July 13, 1977 blackout in New York City was completely the opposite. “The U.S. newspapers, magazines and radios characterized the situation as an ‘inferno.’ Everyone came out to the streets, without regard for human relationships. They acted chaotically, disorderly, murderously and destructively; they plundered and caused commotion. The 10 million residents acted 10 million different ways for the sake of each individual’s interest and safety, and there were no exceptions,” Rhee wrote.
There is no need to read further to get his point. Rhee argues that when every person has what is necessary, but no one is excessively wealthy, humanity can find a social and psychological balance.
The real situation in China, however, was different. The truth did not reach the outside world because the Communist Party gagged the media. The disaster took place at the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Mao Zedong ordered the people to “overcome the hardships with their own strength.”
Chinese authorities controlled information completely and rejected all foreign aid. The People’s Daily, the newspaper of the Communist Party, published the first reports about the earthquake on Aug. 8, 1976, 11 days after the incident. The article depicted nothing but the heroic stories of the People’s Liberation Army and residents to cope with the disaster.
It was three years later that the actual casualties from the earthquake were announced. In November 1979, China said more than 240,000 died in the disaster. Chinese journalist Qian Gang published “The Great China Earthquake,” an investigative report about the quake in Tangshan.
In his book, he wrote that “a large number of thieves plundered during the chaos.”
Please note that I am writing this column in May 2008. We are living in a time when Chinese authorities are voluntarily informing the world about damages from the latest disaster.
What Rhee actually wanted to address in his books was probably not China, but the political conditions in South Korea under the Park Chung Hee regime.
Understanding this allows readers to see what Rhee wants us to, the “moon,” and not “the finger that points to the moon.” In fact, Rhee was the only “finger” at the time.
We are not living in China in 1976 or Korea in 1977. We see a flood of information.
Yet, we face a continuous cycle of distrust over controversies such as U.S. beef imports and avian influenza. Suddenly, I feel a serious responsibility as a writer.

*The writer is the senior culture and sports editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Noh Jae-hyun
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