China’s 2008 snow storms are still far from approaching an end: tens of millions of farmers in mountain regions are still anxiously awaiting rescue from hunger; millions of officials have deferred all normal leave to devote themselves to the relief effort; and hundreds of thousands of troops are being put into highest level emergency rescue action including ensuring that coal is produced and sent to the power plants. “The military don’t play word games.” The recovery of communications, transport and electricity have pledges to obey military orders, all relevant official positions are hanging in suspense, no one dares to bargain at this time, and mined coal is dispatched without regard to price. It can be expected that, at the NPC and CPPCC meetings in March, the Chinese Government will announce to the world that the relief effort has had a decisive victory.
While an assessment of the long-term impact of this disaster on China is premature, we can already see that it was certainly different to the floods of 1998 and SARS in 2003, and more similar to Hurricane Katrina in the US. A loss of confidence by the American public, in not only the Bush administration but in high-level politics as well, was a far-reaching political consequence of that hurricane.
The situation in China is of course different from the US. The majority of people, especially peasants, have long given up hope for the Communist Party and hence cannot be said to have lost confidence. Compared with 2003, many farmers feel overwhelmed by the unexpected favour awarded them this time. On the previous occasion, the Government wanted to forcibly isolate all the migrant workers, leading to many peasants hiding themselves like fugitives. In this instance, not only did Premier Wen Jiabao visit the Guangzhou Railway Station to offer humble condolences to the migrant workers who had been held up there, but large numbers of senior officials who had been living in clover were also sent to the front line of disaster relief to show an interest in the peasants’ welfare.
The Chinese leaders’ political show in this major natural disaster gave outsiders a glimpse into their innermost thoughts. Well, what was learned about the rulers’ attitude of humility? What we saw was not a sincere respect of for public opinion, but fear of the people getting out of control, a lack of confidence in the huge state machinery.
When hundreds of thousands of migrant workers crowded into the square in front of Guangzhou Railway Station, tens of thousands of military police, rather than diversion and rescue personnel, were what the Government immediately transferred. The words of Guangdong Governor Huang Huahua, “preventing anything happening is the name of the game—because if it does it will be big,” fully reveal the real state of mind of those in power in China today.
In the less than five years between Zheng Bijian propososal of a “peaceful rise” to Huang Huahua’s “preventing anything happening is the name of the game,” China’s GDP has almost doubled and the Government’s fiscal revenue quadrupled. The personal wealth of China’s leaders has soared with the soaring stock market and housing prices. The “comparative advantage” of Chinese migrant workers’ blood, sweat and tears seems capable of maintaining the high-speed economic growth for 20 years. The rulers are perfectly aware that China has endless long-term concerns, but they gain confidence from the judgment that, thanks to strong economic growth and the Government’s robust financial resources, the country has no immediate worries. The heavy snows of 2008 however have made China’s rulers see facts they were most reluctant to see: while the Government has the ability to suppress any organized political resistance, it cannot eliminate the real danger of outbreak of large-scale social crisis.
The disaster has shown that the fragility of power, transport and communications, where government intervention is at its deepest, went beyond people’s imaginations. People already knew that these were the sectors whose monopoly interests were richest, whose insiders were most depraved, and which were the most corrupt. What the rulers hoped, however, was that a lot of investment, coupled with modern high technology, could make up for all of these problems, and, while they were not invulnerable, they would not be subject to total failure. The snow proved that China’s unaccountable bureaucratic economy was, like the Northern Fleet in another age, entirely capable of collapsing at first encounter, and providing a fuse for large-scale crisis.
The terror that some one million migrant workers crowded into Guangzhou Railway Station transmitted to the authorities was no less than their shock at the sight of high-voltage power transmission tower collapsed in a row. The basic blueprint for China’s economic success is bureaucratic capital infrastructure investment in support of overseas capital employing cheap migrant workers. If the bureaucratic capital infrastructure is unreliable, it will of course be impossible to retain overseas capital. At which point the migrant workers crowded in front of the militia and police in Guangzhou will not be clamoring to return home for New Year’s, but demanding compensation for their wages.
The big snows of 2008 swept away the confidence of China’s rulers established on luck, but it could not sweep away the mentality of trusting to luck. Thus, although at least half of this disaster was man-made, we will not see any serious accountability in the forthcoming NPC and CP