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Big Trouble in China

This week, my wife and I watched the tragedy of the Sichuan Earthquake unfold to a greater scope. What was once focused on a handful of towns, has now devastated more than one hundred. What once had killed perhaps twenty thousand people, has a confirmed death toll four times that number with estimated deaths well above one hundred thousand people. What was once rescue, has become the grimmer task of recovery and rebuilding. In reading and watching news about the earthquake, I have noticed some fools who want to compare the Chinese response favorably to FEMA's response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a political spin which only demonstrates how poorly they grasp the scope of the catastrophe. That is, from one perspective the US response to Katrina was significantly faster and more effective than the response to the Sichuan earthquake. Rescuers were on-site less than an hour after the levies broke, beginning with the Coast Guard. In comparison, the first rescuers arrived on scene in the Sichuan region about four days after the quake hit, and on foot. Organized rescue efforts in China did not effectively begin until almost a week after the earthquake, in part because China has never established an earthquake response protocol. Also, it is becoming increasingly obvious that neither buildings nor roads nor bridges were built in China to the same sort of code expected in the United States.

- continued -

For now, the Chinese people are united in support of their government and in efforts to help the Sichuan survivors. There is a certain adrenaline to the movement, and action to help people is universally preferred to someone trying to agitate public opinion. Also, the Beijing government has been adept in showing its human face. President Hu Jintao has been seemingly everywhere in the region, and the People's Liberation Army has always been shown leading in delivery of food and medicine, never a weapon in sight of the cameras. For at least another year, the consensus of opinion will favor the government, not least because unlike the West, the media in China will not attack the Central Committee or its decisions, much less the Politburo. But already a few warning signs of discontent are appearing; CCTV noted the need for armed troops in certain areas to deal with looters, groups in some of the larger towns have protested the poor quality of construction, and the Beijing government admitted on Friday that it has not yet arrived at more than fifty towns and villages, even this long after the earthquake. China is often compared favorably to leading nations of the West, but it has no Coast Guard in any Search & Rescue sense, it has no equivalent to FEMA, it has no Corps of Engineers in any sense relevant to the civilian populations, and it has absolutely no disaster planning in place to address weather and natural events like earthquakes.

This is salient to China's future because of two words: Rising Expectations. During the regime of Deng Xiaoping, literacy climbed above 90% in China for the first time ever, and the government loosened the leash on private business, especially in the 'autonomous' regions. The theory was that Communism could rule the country, while allowing a smidgen of Capitalism to make life easier. But people get used to a world of free choice, and an educated population is more aware of the choice available to everyone else. At some point in the next few years, people will begin to discover how Western nations deal with disasters, and they will want to know why natural disasters kill so many fewer people in the West. They will begin to demand accountability from their top leaders, and a more functional response than the platitudes of Mao. It will be slow, and may take decades to emerge fully, but the momentum of such change is historically impossible to stop. The earthquake in Sichuan has sent a lesson which will eventually be learned by the whole country; that even the enlightened Communism of 21st-Century Beijing is far less effective than it needs to be, and the economic success of a little Capitalism will create a growing appetite and demand for a political model in the same alignment.


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Comments (12)

Well said, DJ.... (Below threshold)

Well said, DJ.

The same may be said for th... (Below threshold)

The same may be said for the legal system in china. The goverment is always right.

Sichuan Earthquake!! is rea... (Below threshold)

Sichuan Earthquake!! is really Horrible and I am so sad for the people of China. Thanks for your post.

Not sure where you been get... (Below threshold)

Not sure where you been getting your information, but it sure doesn't jive with what we know and have experienced in China abd from my experience it comletely inaccurate.

Some of the more remote areas had to wait a couple of days for troops to hike in becuase the weather was too bad for air support, but in many areas rescuers were on the scene minutes after the initial quake.

A week after the quake, major relief efforts are underway in the form of housing, clothess and food, with the major problem being logistics.

Try looking into a subject a little better before commenting.

all you have said can't hel... (Below threshold)
One Republic:

all you have said can't help making me convinced you're very patriotic. maybe your patriotism is stirred up by these comparison made between China's relief efforts and that of USA. what's said by chinafubar is true. you should really make the best use of internet resources before jumping to such a hasty conclusion.

As an American living in th... (Below threshold)

As an American living in the US during Katrina and living in Shanghai during the Earthquake, I am going to have to agree in part with One Republic and ChinaFubar on this one.

Governmental response can not realistically be compared between the two. In Katrina, you had a natural weather pattern that caused the levies to break, flooding portions of the city. But only portions. There was still road and water access to parts of the city and the C.G. had resources to do what they could be it by air, land, or water.

In an Earthquake zone, the Chinese government didn't have the same luxury. Weather was prohibitive to get air support. Roads and rail were destroy keeping out land support. Water support was also another issue.

The biggest difference between the two was the while Katrina was a once off event, the quake area had to be concerned with aftershocks (which have come by the hundreds). Over 150 members of a rescue group were killed in landslides following the quake, demonstrating the continuing danger in the area. As possible, the PLA was on the scene (they have a base not far from the center of the quake) trying to save lives and evacuate people from the rubble. Given the challenges placed in front of them, I would say that did a remarkable job in getting there and dealing with the situation head on in a much quicker fashion than was seen by FEMA.

Where two situations can be compared is that much of the carnage was man made. You can blame the US Army Corp of Engineers for the levies. Blame the contractors and the government for the poor construction standards in Sichuan. While it is the job of the contractor to build to specification, the local government is supposed to be there making sure all building codes are being followed. What we have been seeing in the rubble of Sichuan is that many buildings, including schools, simply collapsed because they were not reinforced with rebar in the concrete. Contractors pocketed the money for the money and bribed the local govt official who was complicit with the practice. Some buildings constructed by one company completely fell apart, while a building right next to it, built by another company has only a few cracks in it.

DJ, to your end point:

"The earthquake in Sichuan has sent a lesson which will eventually be learned by the whole country; that even the enlightened Communism of 21st-Century Beijing is far less effective than it needs to be, and the economic success of a little Capitalism will create a growing appetite and demand for a political model in the same alignment. "

I am also going to disagree with you in that. The lesson isn't going to be that the Government here wasn't effective enough. The lesson is going to be that a country, stiving to be a World Leader (China) was able to band together and respond to a national tradgedy in a much faster and more effective than the remaining SuperPower. That is what will be written in the history books here and that is what the lesson learned will be. More people died in this disaster than in a disaster in the West. If an 8.0 hits San Fran, I wonder how many people will perish. And how long will it take for FEMA to get control of the situation there? Let's hope we never have to find out...

Spin-Meisters Untie, I mean... (Below threshold)

Spin-Meisters Untie, I mean Unite!

Fubar, Saw, my primary sour... (Below threshold)

Fubar, Saw, my primary sources were reports from CCTV-4 and CCTV-9, including quotes from officials explaining to visiting Politburo members their reasons for the delay in responding. This information was supplemnted from reports from the USGS (the first Americans on-site) and the International Red Cross, as well as personal reports from contacts I have in China. I notice you did not cite your sources.

I agree that an earthquake is a completely different sort of disaster than a hurricane. Nonetheless, building code standards in China were clearly far inferior to American or European standards. Note the May 23 and 24 televised reports of protests against "wreckers", the builders who have initially been blamed for unexpected collapses of even new structures, particularly the Beichuan Middle School in Mianyang City. When individual buildings are shoddy, that's the fault of builders, but when entire cities collapse it's going to point to the government.

Saw was quick to blame the Corps of Engineers for the New Orleans levy breaks, but he failed to note that even then, buildings generally retained enough integrity to provide some protection until rescue. While the death toll from Katrina was a tragedy, it was nowhere near what it could have been, specificially because of disaster protocols and superior construction, even in the poor sections of town.

By the way, a 7.1 Quake (surface wave magnitude) DID hit the San Francisco Bay area on October 17, 1989, and like the Sichuan quake it was followed by a series of aftershocks of descending magnitude. 67 direct and 6 indirect deaths occurred. While a 7.1 is much smaller than a 7.9 quake, the small number of casualties in the SF quake can reasonably be attributed to better building codes and a specific earthquake response plan, something utterly lacking in China, just as I originally wrote.

It is important to understand that the Chinese cultural community is global, and comparisons between how the Chinese and other governments respond is already being discussed. The 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan, for example, killed several hundred people, but once again superior construction standards and a functioning disaster protocol kept things from getting much worse.

China simply was not ready for this disaster as well as any of the nations to which it wishes to be compared. And that fact is being noticed by the people of China.

And that fact will be vocif... (Below threshold)
P. Bunyan:

And that fact will be vociferously denied by the communists and fellow travelers here in the US.

Remember in 2004 the FEMA r... (Below threshold)

Remember in 2004 the FEMA response was smeared as 'vote-buying' for the slower response to two hurricanes in Florida?

And, Katrina missed New Orleans. The poorest residents were abandoned to fate, as per the "plan" in this the third execution of that very same "plan" by Blanco(D) & Nagin(D) in the face of Bush's pleas to send in the National Guard.

But their gamble worked, there were a few token fatalities, the Superdome lost some skin, and a single building downtown had a portion of a brick wall collapse. Then... the levees gave out and 1000 drowned.

That it was "Bush's Fault" is just a race-baiting lie by the MainStreamMedia that didn't get a single fact right.

In contrast, Mississippi & Alabama got hit by Hurricane Katrine, suffered actual damage, and handled the disaster.

One amazing thing came out ... (Below threshold)
John F Not Kerry:

One amazing thing came out of the disasters in China and Burma. Who ever thought that China could look enlightened next to anyone else in the world? Surprise!

I was in Mianyang on May 12... (Below threshold)

I was in Mianyang on May 12 and for the following 10 days. We took different buses to different parts of city everyday after the quake to examine the damage and stages of response and recovery. We saw absolutely no evidence of looting. BTW, Beichuan Middle School is not in Mianyang City proper, but is in Mianyang City Prefecture of which Beichuan County is a part. Beichuan is located about 30 km to the WNW of the city of Mianyang, and much closer to the fault.






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