Monday, February 04, 2008

The snow

The media routinely says a whole host of things threaten the power of China's ruling Party--the internet, religion, protesting farmers, rock and roll, the middle class (?) and the market.

But when we really, truly see the CCP shaking, it is because of failures to fulfill the routine tasks required of any state. This week's snowstorm and the government's clumsy response, which resulted in Wen Jiabao apologizing to tens of thousands of huddled workers waiting for delayed trains home, was such an instance. The failures of authorities were understandable in a way (snow like that doesn't usually fall in the southeast of China) but the country's overweighted power lines (spaced too far apart to save money) and inability to provide adequate emergency housing were serious mistakes---and were compounded by galling calls for workers to celebrate Spring Festival, the biggest holiday of the year, inside their factories. Which had closed.

The SARS epidemic and its coverup in 2003-2004 was another such instance. The recent protests against the Xiamen PX chemical plant and the Shanghai mag-lev train extension also fall in this category: the government failed in both instances to properly inform the public about its (poorly conceived) development plans. So too, in a way, do the environmental disasters that have sent people into the streets.

Does this mean that people in China are fine with authoritarianism just so long as, in a phrase borrowed from Mussolini's time but appropriate today, "it can make the trains run on time"?

I don't think this is the case, at least not any more the case for the Chinese than for any other people.

A comparison with President Bush's failure to provide timely relief to the residents of New Orleans is instructive: this failure was seen, quite rightly, as symptomatic of residents' everyday experience of racism and disregard for the poor.

Government and market incompetence on a grand scale remind people of the small indignities they have suffered at the hands of the government and market. The middle class is reminded of the red tape and paperwork and corruption and insensitive government projects that stifle their small businesses and disrupt their housing developments. Working people think of the general callousness of employers and cops.

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