Time to end Mao Zedong's disastrous war on nature

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 November, 2009, 12:00am

Man is bound to conquer nature' is one of the celebrated phrases of Mao Zedong. Yet how the Chinese have suffered dearly because of his misguided and disastrous policies, including the Great Leap Forward, in which millions of mainlanders perished.

Now President Hu Jintao preaches his theory of scientific outlook on development, trying to ensure policies are made based on scientific calculations instead of leaders' whims.

But Mao's spirit lingers on.

As the snow that has paralysed much of the northern and central provinces now advances menacingly south, serious questions have been raised over the authorities' reckless propensity to tinker with nature, and lack of preparedness and co-ordination to deal with disasters.

More specifically, mainlanders are asking whether the snowstorm could have been partly triggered by a few eager weather officials trying to induce snow to ease the drought, but the scheme got out of hand.

Why haven't officials learned from their disastrous handling of last year's snowstorms and tried to do a better job preparing and dealing with this snowfall, which is considerably less severe?

Shouldn't officials use the opportunity to raise national awareness about climate change and its impact on the country?

The first snowstorm started in Beijing on November 1, the earliest snow to hit the capital in 22 years.

As widely reported, the Beijing Weather Modification Office publicly claimed credit and said it had blasted rockets of chemicals into the sky to induce the snow to ease the drought in Beijing.

But the snow's unexpected intensity left the city's millions of residents shivering, and led to bitter complaints about the officials' failure to make a timely public warning of the cloud seeding.

When the second snowfall hit Beijing last Tuesday, the picture started to get murkier over whether the weather officials had played a role. China Daily quoted an unnamed official from the office as saying it had induced both storms, but another official later disputed the report, insisting the second storm was 'completely natural'.

When the third storm started on Thursday and paralysed several northern provinces, causing more than 40 deaths and affecting nearly five million people, particularly in Hebei and Shanxi, weather officials completely retreated from public view.

But the questions remain: Did the weather officials in Hebei and Shanxi follow their Beijing colleagues and play with nature? Or could it be that the cloud seeding changed the weather pattern and made the snowstorms heavier? The authorities should make a thorough investigation and make public their findings to ease many mainlanders' concerns.

The central government also needs to review its practice of tinkering with nature for purposes other than the legitimate one of easing drought.

It is widely reported that the government blasted hundreds of rockets to disperse the rain ahead of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics and the grand ceremony to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic on October 1.

This could send potentially dangerous messages to local officials that they could do the same for political purposes. Where do officials draw the line if this fad catches on? Have they given any thought to the consequences of constant weather manipulation and what impact it is likely to have on nature?

To the credit of the weather officials, they did issue warnings about the severity of Thursday's snowstorm, but what happened next was sadly a replica of the aftermath of the more severe snowstorms last year, which paralysed the central and southern provinces and stranded tens of millions trying to head home for Lunar New Year.

Despite the warning, local officials were again ill-prepared this time. Instead of having the de-icing and snow-removing machines ready, and stepping up co-ordination, they did what they've always done - launch their own emergency mechanisms without talking to one another, by cancelling flights and shutting down expressways - leaving thousands of travellers stranded, cold and without food, in Hebei, Henan, and Shanxi provinces.

As a China Daily commentary rightly pointed out last week, officials could have warned mainlanders against hitting the highways unless absolute necessary. They could have used the press and other media such as television, the internet and mobile-phone services for this purpose, and could have ensured that remote areas had enough food and other essentials to last the cold, dark days.

As with last year's snowstorms, the officials blamed a cold front from Siberia. But they should do more. While the cold front is the immediate cause of the snowstorms, the more profound reasons are related to climate change. Broadly speaking, the increasing occurrences of unusual snowstorms and flooding on the mainland have been the results of La Ni?a and El Ni?o, along with rapid and reckless industrialisation and urbanisation.

China, one of the world's biggest emitters of carbon dioxide, has also become one of the biggest victims of climate change, with prolonged drought in the north and extreme weather in the south.

It is time the mainland totally buried Mao's nature-conquering spirit and paid Mother Nature a little more respect.