Former civil affairs official stresses importance of communication during disasters: Ma Yili interview (Part l)

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According to the press conference held by Henan provincial government on Aug 2, 302 people have been killed by heavy flooding in the province since July, and 50 people have gone missing. Since the floods hit, the public, businesses and social groups have been donating money and supplies to support the response. At the same time, a public debate has been sparked on how the government can more effectively respond to major public emergencies and disasters.

In order to find out more about how governments respond to disasters and how they can work with social groups, Ma Yili, former director of Shanghai’s Bureau of Civil Affairs, was interviewed by the Amity Chuanyi Philanthropy Culture Fund.


Q: From your experiences as the director of Shanghai Bureau of Civil Affairs, do you have any thoughts or experiences to share on the government’s role in responding to disasters?

Ma Yili: In my career, I have experienced many emergency responses to big disasters. What left me with the strongest impression was a landslide in 2001 at Hudong Boat Factory in Shanghai, and a big fire in Jing’an in 2010.

In my opinion, while the ability to get things done is really important, the government needs to be more sensitive to different social perspectives and have the ability to hold dialogues with varied social forces during disaster relief operations.

Q: What kind of social perspectives are we talking about?

Ma: I think after a major disaster, the government should make it a priority to name the event. This would show that the government is paying attention to social perspectives.

Naming the event not only reveals how much the government understands the event and has control over it, but also conveys important messages to society . By releasing news and information quickly, it reduces the risk of rumors and misinformation taking hold. However, at the beginning of an emergency response, the government is often caught in a dilemma: on the one hand, it faces a large amount of uncertain information; on the other, it needs to respond to the social demand for information based on the reality of the relevant situation.

Second, the government needs to quickly decide on how best to prioritize different needs.

As a government, the information it collects on the event should be managed with a certain speed, sufficiency and accuracy. If information is released in a timely manner by the authorities, it could help direct social resources, material goods and funding. For example, during the flooding in Henan, should we help the city first, or the rural areas? Or both at the same time? Different priorities will lead to different results. Social resources will follow the government’s priorities, by either following them or complementing them.

Third, the government should try its best to achieve information symmetry during the response.

It is very difficult for outsiders to understand the extreme pressure someone faces as a decisionmaker in the government’s emergency response department.   However, this is not going to work in the long-run.

Because of this, the government needs to learn to release news through the media and have a strategy for news management under the premise of ensuring the authenticity of the information released.  It is not always the best idea to release accurate information immediately. As far as the government is concerned, properly managing the information to be released also shows its capacity to govern. Because once information is released inappropriately, and sometimes it has nothing to do with the accuracy of the information, but just the timing and word choices, it might lead to social unrest. And this might result in negative consequences far worse than the disaster itself. Holding regular press conferences during emergency response operations is an effective mechanism to achieve information symmetry throughout the process. The government can utilize this platform to disseminate information efficiently, and to direct resources and respond to public interest.

Fourth, the government needs to improve its ability to make judgements about public emotions.

It is vital that the government has an accurate perception of public emotions and has the ability to manage opinion during times of crisis. That means, during emergencies, government agencies not only need to pay attention to the demands of their superiors and work hard — they also need to listen to voices across the social sector. Sometimes, these voices are not very strong and hard to find. This requires government agencies to have a strong sense of social awareness and high sensitivity to social perspectives in order to give the appropriate response. Among all government agencies, the Bureau of Civil Affairs should be the bureau that has the most social awareness because it connects with multiple facets of society. It reaches out to communities, social organizations, social workers, grassroots organizations and vulnerable populations and can get to know what is really happening on the ground. At the same time, the bureau can convey the real situation back to decisionmakers via the shortest path.

Thinking back to 10 years ago, during the “Nov 15” Shanghai Jing’an emergency fire response, leaders from the city government all paid particular attention to advice from the bureau during each key event. For example, we gave the city government clear and professional advice regarding “The First Seven” things we had to do for the families of those who had lost their lives in the incident. Our suggestions were based on our basic judgement of public emotions and knowledge of local funeral customs. We were confident about our work and thought that if things were done well, it would help us show our care for those who had died and would have some positive effects on people’s emotions.

So, the Bureau of Civil Affairs took the lead in making an exact plan to respond based on “The First Seven”, and started to implement them after gaining approval from the city government. The proposal included suggestions such as having the director of the neighborhood committee host the memorial, putting out funeral banners, inviting city government leaders to attend, and opening the ceremony to the public. With each and every single detail, we tried to put ourselves in the shoes of an ordinary citizen to see how the series of events would make people feel.

At the time, I completed this task with extreme caution as the head of a government department. I would never have imagined what a writer from Taiwan would say 10 years later about this event: “The first time I ever felt the high capability of the Shanghai government was during this memorial event. At the scene, for the first time, I identified with Shanghai as a community with a shared future. ” This touched me deeply.

At the same time, this incident also taught us a lesson: as long as deaths occur, the funeral department get involved. And their involvement is highly sensitive. However, in plans and proposals for various emergency responses, due to a lack of awareness, the funeral department often gets neglected. Last year during the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, the funeral department was, in fact, on the front line. However, they were not included in the emergency response plans of the medical department, so they arrived on the battlefield with hardly any protection or preparation. I was involved in many funerals of those who died in the disaster, and I felt  deeply that through each stage of the funeral process, the families of those affected and the whole of society were assessing the government’s response.

During the “Nov 15” Shanghai fire incident, we prepared flowers and banners at the funeral site for those who had died, and we provided each family with a social worker. These were all ways that the government showed its care for those who had died, the survivors, and for the public as well.

Fifth, the government and media should make a big effort to advocate for those who attempted to save themselves during disasters.

While responding to major public emergencies, it is reasonable to devote the majority of efforts to reporting on the government’s actions. This is also what the public cares about. However, we shouldn’t neglect the efforts that ordinary people make trying to save themselves. Although we say that state media should work for the government, it should also represent the public. I think that when major media channels report on the government’s emergency response operations, they should leave enough space to report on how ordinary people try to save themselves, so that people recognize that trying to save themselves is a good thing.

In some remote villages, rescue teams might not arrive immediately after a disaster. So until they do arrive, the most direct and effective method is for local people to try and save themselves. Encouraging people to help themselves doesn’t necessarily imply that the government is being irresponsible. One shouldn’t look at this problem in opposition. A government encouraging its citizens to adopt self-help behaviors actually enhances people’s awareness of self-help and their ability to rescue themselves in normal times. This shows exactly how the government takes a social perspective to solving a problem and encourages its people to be active citizens.

Sixth, during emergency response operations, the government needs a platform to communicate with social groups during committee meetings.

Normally, the government manages its branches by departments and levels. However, in an emergency, it is absolutely not enough to coordinate across departments according to everyday protocols. Therefore, the government typically sets up a committee on top of the original hierarchical structure to coordinate across departments. Usually, this committee is led by a senior leader in the city government and includes representatives from all relevant departments. They will hold a meeting every day throughout the response, and when it comes to making big decisions, they will include the department head. This type of committee system makes it much more efficient to respond to emergencies, surpassing the original hierarchical communication system. We saw the advantages of this improved system during the recent response to COVID.

However, if we use a social perspective to observe the system, there is an obvious weakness: the perspective lacks a platform to communicate directly with the social sector. The committee meeting that we usually talk about only coordinates across various government departments, but not between government agencies and external social forces. As a result, many social forces wanting to actively cooperate with the government lack channels and mechanisms for communication and timely guidance from the government. This problem also existed during the recent rescue operations in Zhengzhou. In addition, during the COVID response, it was an improvement that the Bureau of Civil Affairs reached out to communities; however, communities were presented as a part of the government hierarchical structure, and they are different from larger social groups in society. A large amount of social capital and human resources still do not receive appropriate direction during public emergencies.

Therefore, I always recommend setting up a dedicated department to communicate with the social sector during major public emergencies. This should be at every level of an emergency response plan.

Q: Do you have specific suggestions for setting up a dedicated department?

Ma: I think it’s a good idea for the Bureau of Civil Affairs to take the lead in setting up this department, until there are better options. On the one hand, the bureau needs to coordinate across various government departments; on the other, it needs to select those who are familiar with social organizations and have the leadership skills to be responsible for coordination with social organizations and other social forces. When conditions are ready, we can invite experts, scholars, and representatives of social organizations who are familiar with relevant issues to attend the meeting.

In recent years, the number and types of social organizations in different regions have developed to varying degrees. This is a good sign; however, the way that various organizations work together organically is not ideal. Currently, social organizations tend to work solo, so their efficiency and power to get things done is often inadequate. Throughout the years that social organizations and the government have worked together, the relationship between the two resembled that between boss and employees rather than true partners. There was not a lot of mutual understanding and quite a few misunderstandings.

I believe that many independent social organizations are now learning how to collaborate with the government and the business sector. Independence doesn’t imply opposition or resistance, but it is a fundamental, indispensable element to interaction and collaboration. This is also an important reason why we like to work with social organizations with the consciousness of independent legal professionals. On this point, Chinese social and political relations are very different from those abroad, and this may contribute to global knowledge in the future. I recommend that we regularly put into practice the Chinese model of the three-sector cooperation model during emergency response operations.


This piece was kindly translated by Tang Tianyu, a volunteer at China Development Brief. Read the second part of this interview here.