No one should doubt that leaders here care, or that the Party is unconcerned about its political legitimacy. Premier Wen Jiaobao made another crisis cameo to bolster spirits, and the leadership is making sure that the people can count on seeing strong hands in the current storm. Along the way, local cadres are commanded to “go all out” to confront the danger, demonstrating that they are in the vanguard of the government response.
And so, cadres muster for the same old mass mobilization for the earthquakes in Sichuan and Qinghai. And the Party once again has to appeal to the armed forces to come rescue people and protect property. We have seen this script, and it continues to be followed faithfully.
All that might work again. After all, responding to natural disasters appears to bring out some of the better qualities in the bureaucracy here. Focus and consensus come easier, and political infighting gets momentarily sidelined. Dissent and anxiety about the succession process gets placed below the waterline.
But then again the default mode might not work at all.
For example, the central leadership is rediscovering that Beijing is better at generating directives than at driving the behavior of cadres. The massive destruction caused by floods in 1998 was, in large part, the product of poor construction, as money for building material was pocketed by corrupt officials. Safety suffered, and heavy rains exacted a tragic toll. Already, allegations have been raised in the Chinese media that there may have been the same sort of shoddiness, driven by inattention or possibly something worse. Once again, the Party is playing catch-up and clean-up at the same time.