This Bystander remains struck by the attention being given, at least by the Western press, to the floods in Pakistan compared to that been given to China’s, which are on an incomparably greater scale, affecting hundreds of millions of people, not tens of millions as in Pakistan.
True, China is not a locus of America’s “war on terror”. Nor has the flooding there led to the sort of chaos seen in Pakistan thanks to China’s well-laid disaster response plans. Local governments have emergency teams and supplies ready and waiting to go; central government can rapidly deploy specially trained soldiers, armed police and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to the worst affected areas. The earthquakes, floods and droughts of the past couple of years have given them all much opportunity to become seasoned emergency responders. Also, despite months of torrential rains and consequent flooding, landslides and mudslides across the country and a slowly but steadily mounting death toll, there had not been a single incident horrific enough to capture international attention until the landslide that devastated Zhouqu.
That there hadn’t been is thanks in great part to flood-control measures put in place after the terrible flooding of 1998. Those have not been perfect, nor perfectly implemented, and as in the case of the Three Gorges dam some have created new problems of their own, but they have been good enough to prevent a greater disaster than has occurred and particularly to reduce the loss of life.
A question now is what lessons will be learned from the floods of 2010. As we noted earlier, there is debate about the extent to which disasters like the one that has befallen Zhouqu are natural or man-made, an unintended consequence of the rush to economic development in the interior without due concern for the environmental consequences of the construction of hydroelectric dams, increased mining and road building, as well as extensive illegal logging and mining in many mountainous areas. Local officials have been rewarded for economic development, regardless of cost, including to the environment.
Beijing is making great strides for a developing economy in being more protective of the environment. There are policy prescriptions aplenty. That should all be acknowledged, just as the immensity of the challenge of doing that in an economy that the central government wants to be kept growing at at least 8% a year for reasons of political legitimacy should not be underestimated. Even keeping up, let alone catching up is a Herculean task.
There is legitimate economic self-interest in undertaking it. Party leaders are, however, acutely aware of the risk of single-issue social movements evolving into a challenge to their political monopoly. They know their history well enough to understand that environmental degradation has been a fecund source of political movements in every industrial revolution. China’s will be no different; the outcome will depend on the Party’s ability to manage and co-opt them. The lessons of this year may be that the price of political legitimacy has just gone up a notch and gained an added environmental dimension. It is a lesson that will likely be pushed down to Party and local officials harder than before.