Wednesday, August 22, 2007


The outrage that has been directed at Chinese mine bosses and authorities in Shandong is incredible to watch (see the BBC video on Youtube). But it is even more incredible when contrasted with the bewilderment of people in Huntington, Utah, who seem unsure whether to buy the words of Crandall Canyon mine co-owner Bob Murray or the United Mine Workers---and seem, understandably, just weary above all else.

Time and again, there seems to be LESS tolerance for elites misbehaving in China than there is in the U.S. This is, of course, not what one would expect of an authoritarian country where, it is assumed by outsiders, the government exists only because people never do anything about it and are scared as lambs.

Maybe it's the incredible power of American spin to place seeds of doubt in even the most commonsense reaction to events that makes us tired and confused. The U.S. media is cowed by press secretaries and dithers over torture or wire taps or unsafe mines--"Was something wrong REALLY done? Or do we just not understand the complexity of the issue?"

Or perhaps the boldness with which China's revolutionaries once pledged themselves to "serve the people" still resonates back over the ages, casting into sharp relief today's dull, selfish bureaucrats and spurring Chinese to rally against polluting factories, refuse to leave condemned homes to make way for shopping centers, fight with thugs for fields, and smash every piece of glass in the mine company's office.

Or maybe there is simply a stronger tradition of challenging authority---really spitting on it and dragging it through the streets--- in China than in the States, absurd as this may sound to some. And the Chinese government is lucky to have stayed on top of the wave as long as it has.

At any rate, the facts are there, brutal in both countries, in both mines.

No word yet on 181 miners in China who were trapped in a flooded mine several days ago; the government's most recent statement suggests they were victims of a "natural distaster." Meanwhile, Boss Murray is about to give up on recovering the miners in Utah or even their bodies. Documents obtained by the Salt Lake Tribune show the risks that his mine took before the tragedy:

Records of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) show that, after Murray acquired a 50 percent ownership in the mine on Aug. 9, 2006, his company repeatedly petitioned the agency to allow coal to be extracted from the north and south barriers - thick walls of coal that run on both sides of the main tunnels and help hold up the mine.

That stands in stark contrast to statements Murray made Monday asserting that his company's mine plan, and that of the previous owner, were one and the same.

So, what should we do?

[The above photos are from China Digital Times and Fox News].


jkd said...

"Or maybe there is simply a stronger tradition of challenging authority---really spitting on it and dragging it through the streets--- in China than in the States, absurd as this may sound to some."

I dunno. Maybe right now, but I think that could be attributable to the much-more-real prospect in China that malfeasance of elites will result in the specific death or harm of one's self or relations, friends, etc. The US is just, by and large, a much safer place.

Manfred said...

"The US is just, by and large, a much safer place."

Well, yes. That's certainly true. And mine deaths in the thousands are make mine deaths in the dozens pale by comparison.

Maybe a better angle than my original post would be: authoritarianism has to live up to its claims to legitimacy ("serve the people," "tradition", whatever it is) in a way that a country like America doesn't, in PART at least because an authoritarian government's legs are so rickety.

But I still think China is different from other authoritarian governments in the level of expectation people still have of it, tanks in streets and corrupt officials notwithstanding.

I don't think people have the same expectations of Russia.

C said...

Sorry it's taken me so long since my last comment left at your lovely blog.

As for Chinese people being either outraged at elites or cowering lambs, I'm not sure that the two are somehow mutually exclusive. If the elites were not local mine bosses, but rather Hu Jintao, I'm sure there would be less actual spitting going on.

Also, I think that there's a sense that economic elites and political elites should be treated differently. Thus, it's easy to spit in the face of someone who's killing people to make money and less easy to spit in the face of people who are killing people for some larger political/social goal. And I would not put local authorities in the "political elite" category here, as they are so clearly profiting directly off of local corruption.

Also, as you said with people in the US, I think people in China often do blow off larger political issues as being too complex for them (maybe Hu Jintao knows something I don't, maybe I just don't understand the complexities of internal migration, etc.). If Chinese coal companies were as large and technocratic as U.S. ones, perhaps the reactions wouldn't be so visceral. I don't know, I'm just speculating here.