This week, my wife and I watched the tragedy of the Sichuan Earthquake unfold to a greater scope. What was once focused on a handful of towns, has now devastated more than one hundred. What once had killed perhaps twenty thousand people, has a confirmed death toll four times that number with estimated deaths well above one hundred thousand people. What was once rescue, has become the grimmer task of recovery and rebuilding. In reading and watching news about the earthquake, I have noticed some fools who want to compare the Chinese response favorably to FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a political spin which only demonstrates how poorly they grasp the scope of the catastrophe. That is, from one perspective the US response to Katrina was significantly faster and more effective than the response to the Sichuan earthquake. Rescuers were on-site less than an hour after the levies broke, beginning with the Coast Guard. In comparison, the first rescuers arrived on scene in the Sichuan region about four days after the quake hit, and on foot. Organized rescue efforts in China did not effectively begin until almost a week after the earthquake, in part because China has never established an earthquake response protocol. Also, it is becoming increasingly obvious that neither buildings nor roads nor bridges were built in China to the same sort of code expected in the United States.
For now, the Chinese people are united in support of their government and in efforts to help the Sichuan survivors. There is a certain adrenaline to the movement, and action to help people is universally preferred to someone trying to agitate public opinion. Also, the Beijing government has been adept in showing its human face. President Hu Jintao has been seemingly everywhere in the region, and the People’s Liberation Army has always been shown leading in delivery of food and medicine, never a weapon in sight of the cameras. For at least another year, the consensus of opinion will favor the government, not least because unlike the West, the media in China will not attack the Central Committee or its decisions, much less the Politburo. But already a few warning signs of discontent are appearing; CCTV noted the need for armed troops in certain areas to deal with looters, groups in some of the larger towns have protested the poor quality of construction, and the Beijing government admitted on Friday that it has not yet arrived at more than fifty towns and villages, even this long after the earthquake. China is often compared favorably to leading nations of the West, but it has no Coast Guard in any Search & Rescue sense, it has no equivalent to FEMA, it has no Corps of Engineers in any sense relevant to the civilian populations, and it has absolutely no disaster planning in place to address weather and natural events like earthquakes.
This is salient to China’s future because of two words: Rising Expectations. During the regime of Deng Xiaoping, literacy climbed above 90% in China for the first time ever, and the government loosened the leash on private business, especially in the ‘autonomous’ regions. The theory was that Communism could rule the country, while allowing a smidgen of Capitalism to make life easier. But people get used to a world of free choice, and an educated population is more aware of the choice available to everyone else. At some point in the next few years, people will begin to discover how Western nations deal with disasters, and they will want to know why natural disasters kill so many fewer people in the West. They will begin to demand accountability from their top leaders, and a more functional response than the platitudes of Mao. It will be slow, and may take decades to emerge fully, but the momentum of such change is historically impossible to stop. The earthquake in Sichuan has sent a lesson which will eventually be learned by the whole country; that even the enlightened Communism of 21st-Century Beijing is far less effective than it needs to be, and the economic success of a little Capitalism will create a growing appetite and demand for a political model in the same alignment.