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Rant: Cyclones, Earthquakes and the Olympics

China Earthquake 2008

What a noticeable difference between the responses of the Burmese military junta to the recent devastating cyclone that ravaged large parts of the Irrawaddy Delta and the Chinese government response to the 7.8 earthquake that hit Sichuan province earlier this week.

Both countries have been run by totalitarian regimes masquerading as one-party “democracies”. Both governments have a long history of human rights violations and both have not hesitated in the recent past to use lethal force against their own people while the rest of the world mutters “shame” and continues to do not very much at all.

Yet the response by the Chinese authorities to the earthquake at least gives the appearance of being proactive. They responded fairly quickly by airdropping rescue workers, supplies and followed this up with a coordinated mobilization of troops, medical staff, equipment, food and medicine within 36 hours.

And unusually for the Chinese government, realistic facts and figures seemed to have been released to the world’s media and foreign journalists have been permitted to enter China and record the disaster first hand, reporting from very close to the epicenter itself.

In contrast, the Burmese Junta seemed much more interested in pushing ahead with their “Constitutional” referendum. Of course “Constitutional” in Burma, means consolidating the government’s nefarious hold on power and outlawing organised opposition (in this case formally excluding the main opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, from office).

Meanwhile although supplies are being taken from the international community, no foreign aid workers are being permitted to enter the country. The foreign media has largely been excluded as well and the casualty figures released by the Burmese government are laughable.

So why has the Chinese government’s approach to a national disaster been so radically different from previous events and the Burmese approach?

Could it be that they are scheduled to host the Olympic games in August?

When this thought first popped into my head I laughably started to dismiss it and then paused to reconsider…

First and foremost is the prestige factor, which is of particular relevance here. Anyone who knows the Chinese people knows how much value they place on “face” and after the controversial Olympic torch protests last month, China is keen to present itself as a progressive nation, moving towards compromise and dialogue.

This at least partially explains their approach to the earthquake. Knowing that the eyes of the world will once again be focusing on China and how it reacts to a humanitarian crisis, the authorities know they have to be seen to be organised and proactive. And so far they are doing just that.

Secondly (and far more important than the Prestige, even to the last official bastion of communism) is of course the MONEY. China believes that the Olympics will be an economic bonanza of foreign income, which will also seal China’s place as a legitimate tourist destination and launch their fledgling tourism/leisure industry.

As readers of earlier entries in this blog may know, I’m not a big fan of the Olympics. I generally see them as an opportunity for building contractors and souvenir manufacturers to make a fortune (paid by our tax) for a short-term PR exercise that takes 20 years to repay.

But in this case it looks like the Olympics has had some positive impact on a national disaster (albeit unintended).

Perhaps we should give the Olympics to more countries run by dictatorships…and with the money we save we can maybe splurge on a few luxuries (like roads, schools, hospitals, the environment and suchlike).

Meanwhile, if the despotic Burmese authorities are going to continue to sit on the parliamentary side of their arses while up to 2.5 million of their people perish, I think the UN should start deploying troops into Burma. If the government there won’t help their own people then the rest of the world must step in – and if that means shooting a few Burmese generals then so be it!

What do you reckon?

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