A lesson for Beijing in the politics of snow

Letter from China
Copyright The International Herald Tribune
Published: February 1, 2008
SHANGHAI: Snow blankets much of China, including parts of the south, where real cold is an infrequent visitor.
It has been repeated over and over again that there has been nothing like this in 50 years.
All across China, power cables have drooped and snapped under the weight of the ice, hanging heavy like stalactites. Highways have been closed because of the snowfall, leaving drivers stranded in their cars or in service stations awaiting rescue.
More dramatically still, trains have been knocked out of service on the country’s most important routes, leaving mind-boggling numbers of passengers, most of them migrant workers, without a way home for the annual Spring Festival, the most important holiday on the Chinese calendar.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, the figure who excels at putting a human face on Chinese politics like none other these days, took the extraordinary step of flying to the southern city of Guangzhou to address a crowd of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who were desperate for seats on trains that weren’t coming. And he did it in an extraordinary way, with a rare touch of humility.
First, Wen, the prime minister of the world’s most populous nation, began by introducing himself: “Hello everyone,” he said, “I’m Wen Jiabao.” There was more to it, though, than just the modesty. Inadvertently or not, Wen’s words spoke to the huge gap between China’s rulers and its ruled, a gap that his personal style has often labored to overcome.
It was a quiet but powerful recognition of the fact that the millions of migrant workers who keep the country’s economy churning are too busy, or too poor, too tired or too alienated, to have followed the news on television closely enough to recognize their country’s second-highest official simply by seeing him before a crowd with a megaphone. Or was it that they never dreamed that someone like him would come to address them?
Wen was not finished surprising, though. Moments later, he voiced an apology for the difficulties the stormy weather has imposed on so many. He actually said, “I apologize.”
It would not be an exaggeration to say that China’s big snowstorm has revealed an embarrassing crisis of, well, crisis management in this country. There seems to have been an utter lack of preparedness for anything like a weather emergency of these proportions, an appreciation of which was not lost on many Chinese, including the propaganda system, which has worked overtime to combat this impression.
The rule of thumb in matters like these is that a people’s expectations rise in proportion to a country’s successes. China’s recent successes, needless to say, have been immense, and, as any number of commentators pointed out, a country that is capable of putting astronauts in space and being host to big ceremonies, as one online commentator remarked (read a coy reference to the Olympics), should be able to keep the highways open and the trains running, too, snow or no snow.
By this standard, the Great Snowstorm of 2008 has been a public image disaster for the Chinese government – not vis-à-vis whatever foreigners might think about the country, an area that President Hu Jintao, in a bit of unfortunate timing, recently said merits a major new propaganda drive, but rather in terms of the much more important question of how Chinese see their government and its ability to provide basic services.
To get a sense of how this works, one need only think back to the mishandling of Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts in the United States, and the impact that fiasco had on the standing of President George W. Bush and the image of his government.
The United States, however, has mechanisms for dealing with crises of governance like this; there are no remote equivalents in China. Most important, of course, is the possibility of “throwing the bums out,” meaning by ballot box. There is also, obviously, no press in China that can freely criticize the government when the failings are monumental.
The real scandal of China’s weather emergency is that it had been going on for weeks, largely uncovered and not treated as an emergency for most of that time. That is because the heavy snows that have been accumulating in central China were falling on places far out of the spotlight.
There is an inclination in autocratic political cultures to think that allowing the press to report freely would constitute subversion and destabilize the government. On the contrary, elections and the freedom to criticize are important not just because they help keep politicians honest, but because they serve as escape valves for pressures that could become dangerous otherwise.
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