Friday, May 16, 2008

For Chinese Authorities Sichuan Quake a Reminder of Even Bigger Political Risks

Siegfried Knittel writes to remind me that “[China] allow[s] only rescue teams from neighbour countries to work in the area.” I wasn’t aware of that, but he’s the professional journalist. Indeed the facts seem to be bearing this out so far, as China yesterday (May 15) decided to accept rescue and relief teams from Japan, Taiwan (not a separate country in the eyes of most member of the community of nations, but a significant neighbor nevertheless), and Russia.

Japan is widely believed to be the first to be accepted, and I agree with people who read political meaning into that. It’s certainly more effective public diplomacy than the two million-dollar (per year!) “gift” pandas.

But to go back, has Vietnam even offered? Is it “neighborly neighbors” only? And what about Australia, a most neighborly not-quite neighbor—whose initial offer had been politely declined, like all the others? An offer from the United States, and surely there must have been one, had not been accepted as of yesterday.

So there does seem to be political considerations in the process, though I’ll keep an open mind.

Instant alternative history here: Would it have helped if the teams had been accepted earlier? Perhaps. But as someone who was working in New York during 9.11, I can understand a decision by the Chinese authorities that the extra demands on their own resources from the reception, transportation, and coordination with the foreign teams with all their supplies outweighed the positives. Money and supplies on the other hand can be deposited or warehoused and disbursed over time as required. I’m sure that the national security angle was considered, given the presence of Tibetans and other ethnic minorities in the disaster area, but I’m accepting the technical reasons as the overriding concern unless I see evidence or explanations by experts to the contrary.

The real need appears have been more cranes, trucks, and other heavy equipment to clear out the wreckage and rescue trapped victims, as well as more access roads and airfields to move them in. These are things that the outside world could have done little about, even if they had been asked.

One last point: What would the situation have been if the earthquake had hit a really large urban center? To say that the urban skyline in China has changed dramatically since the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake would be a gross understatement. How quake-resistant/resilient are those high-rises and other new buildings that have been popping up like “bamboo shoots after the rain”? Would the PLA and security forces be enough to contain unrest in the event of a massive collapse, let alone deal with the rescue effort? Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao are very popular, but the extent of public discontent falling on the authorities in the wake of the Sichuan Earthquake would be dwarfed by one that levels a similar percentage of buildings. The logistics would be far easier for the relief and rescue efforts, but that would be an enormous challenge too.

I think that once thing settle down, the Chinese authorities are going to do a serious evaluation of the response to this natural disaster and begin preparing for the next big one. It will, if it occurs, be an existential challenge for the Communist regime.


Sophie said...

The question about "if the earthquake had hit a really large urban center" can be applied to any large urban center.
What will happen when the next big Kanto earthquake strikes ? How will Japanese nuclear plants, designed to withstand 6.5 earthquakes, react to a 7.5 one? With the recent building scandals, I'm not sure about the resilience of big Japanese condo buildings...
About accepting the Japanese offer first, I also think there is a political side to it, but besides, Japanese teams seem to have one of the best trainings related to earthquake response.

Jun Okumura said...

Yes, it can happen to Tokyo, as it happened to Kobe in the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. But if that leads to a public loss of faith in the authorities, the most that can happen politically is a transfer of power to the opposition, a seachange in Japanese politics, but still merely a change in administrations. In China, there is no institutionalized political opposition, so a loss of the public mandate could lead to regime change. It is this systemic risk, this existential threat, that distinguishes authoritarian regimes from established democracies.

I’m sure that Japan is good at this sort of thing. It’s also interesting to note that today’s (May 17) report says that Singapore has also sent a rescue team. Singapore is in the neighborhood, but it is also the only other Han-majority sovereign state, not counting Taiwan.