Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Burma and China - Reacting to Their Natural Disasters
Corriere della Sera - May 28th 2008

When two natural disasters occur side by side, in neighbouring countries, we are inevitably tempted to compare them. That is exactly what has happened with the terrible tragedies of the Burmese cyclone, which has killed at least 78,000 people and left about 50,000 more missing, and the Chinese earthquake, where the official assessment is now that 55,000 have died, 25,000 are missing, about 300,000 more have been injured and perhaps 5m are homeless. The general view has been that the Chinese authorities have responded much more effectively and humanely. While that is certainly true, this comparison may now be concealing more than it reveals.

          A much better point of comparison is an earthquake that took place in Tangshan, in China, in 1976. In that earlier disaster, it is thought that 250,000 people died. But at the time the Communist government withheld news of the quake for several weeks. Even once it admitted that the disaster had happened it refused to accept international aid. In that year, the authorities were more concerned to hold a period of national mourning for the death of Mao Xedong, the “great helmsman”, than to allow any official mourning for the earthquake victims.

          The Burmese military government’s reaction to the cyclone disaster is eerily reminiscent of that 1976 episode in China. The Burmese military seems almost proud of how little it cares about the welfare of the Burmese people. It has deliberately isolated itself in a new capital, Naypyidaw, that it founded three years ago in order to withdraw from the country’s biggest city, Rangoon. It has not refused foreign aid altogether, but it has resisted the entry of foreign aid workers, including people from neighbouring countries such as Thailand and India. It is disdainful of its own people but also, like the Chinese leadership of 1976, paranoid about foreign threats and interference.

          China’s reaction today shows how different the country and the leadership have become sine 1976. The current leadership is highly sensitive to foreign criticism but it is no longer paranoid about foreign threats and interference. What it is paranoid about, however, is the threat of domestic protest against its rule. Chinese citizens are more affluent and now have access to modern media and communications. Far from being able to conceal the disaster, both President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao rushed to the scene after the quake, in order to be seen on television sympathising with the victims, directing the rescue effort and standing at the centre of the national mourning.

          Their reaction was so media-conscious that you might almost imagine they are elected politicians. It was a faster and more sensitive response than that of President George Bush after the flood disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But there is a crucial extra reason for that response. It is that, more than was the case with Hurricane Katrina or Burma’s Cyclone Nargis, the Communist Party is at risk of being blamed for the extent of deaths and destruction in the Sichuan quake.

          In the quake, more than 5m buildings collapsed. That is not surprising in a poor country. But quite a lot of them were new. The danger for the Communist Party is that they will be blamed for allowing new buildings to be constructed that did not meet official standards, perhaps because of corruption or negligence. And if this has happened in Sichuan, it could have happened all over China.

          That is why the openness and media-consciousness of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao are misleading. While they are using the media to show that they care, the authorities are also controlling the media to try to prevent criticism about corruption and building codes from spreading too widely.  Patriotic feelings of national unity at a time of disaster are being encouraged. As time passes, however, and as attention turns to the question of why so many new buildings collapsed, that unity may well start to be tested. At that point, so will be the Chinese leadership.


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