Mr Bush's glass house shatters

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 September, 2005, 12:00am

Chinese officials tasked with disaster relief have been closely observing fallout from Hurricane Katrina, with shock. It is not just the apparent ineffectiveness of the federal government's response. Their greatest concern is they have been adopting Federal Emergency Management Agency procedures for years, assuming they knew best.

Katrina has drawn into sharp focus the inapplicability of theory to practice.

China's political system, often criticised as lacking transparency and democratic mechanisms, has proved capable of effectively managing catastrophes. In 1954, record floods drowned 33,000 people. The August 1998 floods left more than 3,000 people dead and 15 million homeless; over 500,000 people had to be evacuated. The damage came to US$20 billion. Experience is a reality check.

For the first time, in Katrina's wake, it is China offering America medical assistance and aid worth US$5 million. Ironically, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez also offered to send planeloads of aid, including 2,000 soldiers, firefighters, volunteers and disaster specialists. As the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, Venezuela pledged US$1 million in aid through Citgo Petroleum and fuel supplies to hit areas.

Cuba also offered 1,100 doctors. Cuba's experience counts. In six hurricanes from 1996 to 2002, only 16 people died. Last year, the worst hurricane since 1915 killed four. This year, Hurricane Dennis caused 10 deaths. UN disaster relief expert Salvano Briceno last year said, 'Cuba must serve as an example, [suggesting] the Cuban model could easily be applied to other countries.'

So maybe the 'axis of evil' is not so evil after all? As Cuban President Fidel Castro said, 'The No1 thing is to protect lives. You can rebuild everything except for a life.'

Chinese leaders looking for solutions to the growing rich-poor gap between urban and rural areas have been shocked by images of rich whites getting evacuation priority, poor blacks stuffed into stadiums, looting and chaos. They did not expect this in the US, where media reports often express concern over potential instability in China. Katrina, however, has blown the cover off the economic and social priority gaps in America, showing how these are often drawn along racial lines.

In searching for a new political identity China's leaders recently coined 'harmonious society'. Katrina shows that in a catastrophe, even democracies may not seem so harmonious if the government cannot respond efficiently. It sharply reminds us that everybody is the same when a crisis strikes and the social support basket breaks. For Chinese leaders thinking through their own political evolution, Mao Zedong's teachings on 'practice over theory' suddenly seem quite realistic.

When Sars broke everyone blamed Meng Xuenong , the incompetent former Beijing mayor who swept it under the carpet and shuffled victims from one hospital to another in the dead of night to avoid World Health Organisation inspections. But Mr Meng was sacked pretty quickly. When Wang Qishan took over as mayor, the army was called in to build a field hospital. It was operating within a week.

While the US is harshly critical of what it sees as China's potential military rise, we should be reminded that the People's Liberation Army is a largely domestic force which spends most of its time reinforcing dams and dikes. It is always the PLA that is sent in during floods and earthquakes. In 1998, China mobilised 1.7 million PLA soldiers and civilians to construct and reinforce levees. Now where was the US National Guard? They are busy fighting in Iraq.

Joan Baez once sang: 'Where have all the soldiers gone?' Probably to the wrong country. Would the US president earn a place in history next to Mr Meng? Or would he take some tips from Dr Castro?

Laurence Brahm is a political economist and lawyer based in Beijing