Tuesday, June 3, 2008

China in the year 8, Earthquake and Olympics Shake the Middle Kingdom

The year 2008 may turn out to be a watershed year for China. After demonstrating the worst of a response to trouble in Tibet, and suffering their most devastating earthquake in thirty years. China is poised to be a different country by the time the Olympics take place in August. No one expects it to instantly join the club of Western style democracies, but the signs of grassroots social change are evident across the width of China. Two articles, one by Steve DeAngelis of Enterra Solutions Will a New China Emerge from the Earthquake's Rubble? sees change afoot.

In a recent post about the earthquake in China [Globalization and Giving -- the Rise of Chinese Philanthropy], I noted some hopeful signs about how society is changing in there. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who traveled through China to see how the country is responding, also sees some hopeful signs ["Earthquake and Hope," 22 May 2008].

Steve points out that Kristof's article notes that China is still a couple decades away from true democratic reforms and that transformation will be moved along by continued capitalism.

He concludes that he shares Kristof's:

...Optimism that China is moving in the right direction. Unfortunately, I don't believe the course it will take towards democracy is going to be a straight one. The rest of the developed world is going to have to find ways to help China back on the road whenever it takes a detour.

In a related article from Reuters, China's '08 generation finds a voice in tumultuous times, by Chris Buckley

By the time 2008 ends, Wang Junbo joked during a sweltering afternoon in China's earthquake zone, he and other young Chinese will have seen enough suffering, conflict and drama to retire early and write their memoirs.

...Wang's belief that this year's cascade of crises, especially the quake, has been an initiation rite for Chinese born after 1980 is widely shared. And it could leave a deep impression on a nation where the ruling Communist Party has warily faced its youth raised on global capitalism, Internet and text messaging.

The article points out that:

The public concern fostered by the quake may also amplify public scrutiny over reconstruction efforts and the resettlement of quake refugees. The Chinese public has already shown acute sensitivity to post-quake corruption exposed by an emboldened domestic media.

"People's expectations have also risen. They want to see aid used in a more fully transparent and accountable way," said Zhang Tuo, a business student in Beijing who has been organizing quake aid. "If it's not, the response will be real anger."

A lot has been written about poor construction and lack of government control of safety standards. Author Tom Barnett has pointed out that China in many ways resembles America during the boom period in the final quarter of the 19th century. Our own experience with an earthquake in San Francisco in 1906 serves as a distant mirror of a time when our own construction standards were non-existent. The two pictures above the left from China's devastating 1976 earthquake and on the right San Francisco in 1906 look starkly similar.

2008 was suppose to be a year of good luck for China. The number 8 is considered the luckiest number in Chinese folklore. They have arraigned for the Olympics to begin on 8/8/2008 at 8PM to seal their celestial fortune. The earthquake, may in the long run turn out to do more to usher China towards a more open and responsive government than a dozen Olympic style events could accomplish.

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