井底之蛙

5/15/2008

Seismic politics

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:59 am

sichuan

There is not much I can say about the earthquake in Sichuan, although I am glad to hear that all the people I know in Sichuan are safe. One thing that is pretty interesting are the attempts of the Chinese government to manage the crisis. James Fallows has some interesting observations on Chinese media coverage of the quake, which still seems pretty primitive. I am not privy to conversations in Zhongnanhai, but I assume that the government is very interested in looking like the state is taking this seriously and is being effective in dealing with it. During the Yangzi floods a few years ago I remember seeing pictures of PLA troops trying to hold back the water with their bodies, which probably was not very effective as a flood control measure, but did result in pictures of the Army helping the people. Paratroopers are already landing in the quake area.

Proper management of a natural disaster is of course important for states, and people are already drawing comparisons to the Tangshan earthquake of 1976, the bungled handling of which was one factor in the political chaos of that year.

Qian Gang is putting out what I would call the official line, that the time is not right to ask questions.

Some of my friends in the media have already turned their attention to the question of responsibility (问责) and looking back (反思). I want to say to you — all of this you want to do should be done, but now is not the time. The behavior of some media, which have reported already within prescribed themes before information about the quake is even clear, or which have played the story from certain angles, is even more inappropriate. There is nothing more important than human beings. In these few days, as millions of lives hang in the balance, let us observe together this great war to save lives.

All I can say is good luck with that. Perhaps the Chinese government is learning the American trick of saying first that the event is too close for us to understand it and then switching to saying that this is old news and we should not live in the past. How well the quake is defused as a political issue depends on a number of things. How well the relief efforts go. How much of the damage was caused by shoddy buildings. (At least some people are already blaming corrupt officials for cutting corners on school construction) How much future damage will be caused by shoddy buildings? (Up to 200 dams were supposedly damaged by the quake. This could end up being a slow motion disaster.) Will the state be seen as insensitive in its handling of the crisis? (Already people are asking that the Olympic torch run/great national celebration of China Power be toned down a bit.) In the next year or so I expect that things will be pretty bleak in the quake areas in part because of the quake and in part because it was a pretty poor rural area to start with. Will this lead to more talk about rural poverty? In the West this will probably be a pretty short media cycle, which may clear up a few questions in our elite media such as “Is Sichuan where Szechuan food comes from” (yes) and “Why is China so stagnant and unchanging?” (Don’t get me started) I expect the Chinese press to be filled with stories of rescue and grief for at least a while, as Qian Gang suggested.

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