Natural disasters have political consequences.
If George W. Bush had handled the Hurricane Katrina aftermath in 2005 as well as China’s leadership thus far has reacted to its far more deadly earthquake, he would be more popular and could have finished his second term with greater achievements on other fronts.
Tempting as it is to judge China’s response as further evidence of the country’s unstoppable rise, it is a reminder of Chinese fragility. What lurks beneath the firm surface of accomplishment are growing economic, social and environmental shifts that might threaten the country’s single-party, technocratic leadership.
Put simply, incompetent federal and local officials’ bungling of the Hurricane Katrina relief plans posed no danger to America’s system of government. Autocratic Chinese authorities have more at stake as their legitimacy derives not from popular vote but from performance and a monopoly on political power. For all its leaps into modernity, China remains a country where hundreds of millions see divine damnation for their leaders in natural disasters.
Though fading, this notion of “the Mandate of Heaven” has supported rulers from the Zhou Dynasty in 1000 B.C. through China’s last Qing Dynasty, which ended in 1912. Term limits came in the form of severe floods, famines or earthquakes that expressed heaven’s displeasure. The events, in turn, sparked large-scale organized rebellions that resulted in overthrows.
Even Communist Party diehards wondered whether there wasn’t some link between Mao Zedong’s death and the 1976 earthquake that shortly preceded it, killing 250,000.
Suited to the Task
The current government didn’t need superstition to comprehend the stakes in the May 12 earthquake, which left about 70,000 people dead or missing. With inflation accelerating, air- and-water quality worsening, and the gap between coastal rich and inland poor growing, a natural disaster of this magnitude could have touched off political unrest.
This was, however, precisely the sort of crisis that best suits the leadership of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. Since taking power in 2002, Hu’s administration has won respect for its skill. Deng Xiaoping from 1978 to 1993 focused on pulling China out of political isolation and underdevelopment. Jiang Zemin from 1993 to 2003 accelerated economic growth.
Yet it has been left to Hu to balance this wildly successful economic engine with social, legal and political measures that might bridge gaping economic and social divides while maintaining the Communist Party’s primary interest of continuing its reign indefinitely.
The government’s performance in the last week shouldn’t alter anyone’s conviction that a more complex and capitalist China must have more democratic evolution or even revolution. It also underscores why the Communist Party continues to befuddle those who don’t believe it can ride the tiger it has created.
Within hours of the initial quake, China’s local and central government, its police and military, and its mobilized citizenry joined in a rapid response of a scale and sophistication on par with the highest international standards.
The Chinese military’s response surprised many Western analysts — who busy themselves counting missiles and submarines — with its impressive advances in training, equipment and flexibility for new operational contingencies. If China had the political will, it now has the capability to work alongside the U.S. and others after the Myanmar cyclone to break the junta’s blood-stained intransigence and save tens of thousands of lives.
China also demonstrated how far its markets, banking system and corporate management have matured. The quake happened at 2:28 p.m., and by 8 a.m. the next day financial markets suspended trading on 66 companies whose major assets and productive capacities were in the quake zone. Companies quickly diverted supply chains, and national and regional banks kept capital flowing to the public, relief agencies and workers. Energy and construction firms donated their work and labor to quickly begin repair and replacement of critical infrastructure.
Finally, though China’s autocratic government instituted a near-total media blackout around Tibet’s recent violence, it opened the floodgates of press freedom this time. Explanation: The party saw a chance to advance its image as protector of the people and purveyor of national will.
Wen acted more like New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani did after Sept. 11, not like an apparatchik, while organizing the rescue of 300 students in Juyuan near the quake’s epicenter amid state media cooing over his selfless leadership. Though he cut his arm while falling in the school’s rubble, he refused medical assistance and shouted to the children buried inside: “I am Grandpa Wen Jiabao. Children, you have to hold on, and you will be saved.” As bodies of several dead children were lifted from the rubble, he vowed that the government would save every life possible.
That said, parts of the public may wonder how such caring leaders allowed ramshackle building standards that worsened the devastation. Some of the greatest casualties came in newer structures, a product of an overheating economy where inadequate construction oversight and corruption probably led builders to cut corners to maximize profit.
China is likely over time to go in the direction of other East Asian countries, where economic growth, a larger middle class and greater security prepared the ground for democratic change. The past week’s crisis would seem to underscore the strength of the current system, but its own structural weaknesses will grow more obvious as economic and social friction builds.
Frederick Kempe is president and CEO of the Atlantic Council. Originally published 20 May 2008 by Bloomberg News. Reprinted with permission.