Wednesday, May 14, 2008

China and Bizarro China

Beyond the initial shock over the enormity of the blow and the growing horror at the rapidly rising death toll, what’s striking about the disaster in China’s Sichuan Province is the openness of it all. The media are augmenting their own on-the-spot reporting with Xinhwa wires and video, including raw footage from people who just happened to be there with cameras when the earthquake struck. One day after the quake, the Chinese authorities in Beijing held at least one detailed briefing for the foreign press. And the tragic, ever-increasing numbers are tumbling out, in town-by-town detail. Not that it would have been easy to pull down the shutters—Chengdu, the Sichuan capitol, and its environs are a popular tourists’ destination; at least one American tourist interviewed live from the CNN studio, likely by cell phone—but the fact that they did not, could not, shows that they are aware of the fact that China is embedded in the global community and are behaving accordingly.

That’s a good thing, and it’s not just about the rest of the world. The Chinese public is watching, too, and speaking out. When the Chinese media aired footage of the Olympic torch being passed along by happy runners with nary a nod to the unfolding tragedy, there was serious public outrage. And the authorities responded, promising downsized fanfare, as well as a minute of silence before the run each day. They know that the source of governance in a contemporary society plugged into the global community, their own Heavenly Mandate, lies on the acquiescence, if not the will, of the public. They are trying to pull this off without enfranchising their citizens, not an easy task. They’re doing a pretty good job so far.

Of course, for the victims of the earthquake, the media rollout is the least of it. But the on-the-ground efforts seem pretty solid too. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, a geological engineer by trade, has flown in to take direct command—he was a crack mining engineer before turning to full-time politics—and is swiftly marshaling massive resources, including the People’s Liberation Army, for rescue, recovery and, no doubt, future rebuilding efforts. They are not papering over shortages, they appreciate our offers for help, but please keep the medics and nurses and other people on hold for now, we have our hands full managing our own, and you will believe that, because they have been up front with everything else.

So you have the feeling that if China held a free national election after the Beijing Olympics, the Communist Party could run the table with the Hu-Wen tag team…… could they spare one of them for us…… In that one election. It’s what comes after that one, as well as what to do with all those party hacks, which will hold them back.

The Myanmar government in Burma is a different animal. Unprepared, ill-equipped, but most incriminating of all, disinterested by all accounts, they will also accept money and goods but not people. And things are returning to normal, thank you. But unlike China, they need the military transport planes, doctors and nurses, and aid workers to coordinate the rescue and relief efforts, to mention the obvious deficiencies that leap to mind. We think they’re saying that because they’ll look bad in comparison. If that’s true, that’s the good news; at least they care about what the Burmese public thinks.

Perhaps they’re just following the natural instincts of dictatorships to hide everything. Most everything else they do confirms that suspicion. But if so, they are doing an awful job. The Western media are carrying more on-the-spot pictures and video than you will be able to see and watch in a full day’s viewing—not that you will be able to, unless you are supremely indifferent to human suffering. The Myanmar government can minimize the damage and the death toll (it has), it can tell us that things are under control (it has), but the shield is riddled with cracks and holes. Corruption and incompetence must be conspiring to be totalitarianism’s own enemy and the media’s best friend—not quite a silver lining, but that’s how we get to know. Any of this openness as the disaster unfolds must be purely accidental.

Myanmar is Bizarro China.

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