Natural disasters, such as the cyclone that just hit India, sometimes not only destroy homes and end lives but also trigger intense debates. These often focus on very contemporary concerns, from the enduring legacy of American racial divides in the case of 2005's Hurricane Katrina to dangers of nuclear radiation in the case of 2011's Japanese tsunami -- events that are on my mind as I prepare to head to New Orleans to give a public talk at Loyola University on Wednesday and gear up to head to Tokyo at the end of the month to speak at Sophia University and at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan. Like any historian of China worth his salt, though, I'll be quick to tell you that, as important as recent debates spurred by natural disaster have been, there is nothing distinctively 21st century or even distinctively modern about catastrophes bringing political issues to a boil.
Throughout China's long imperial period, natural disasters were treated as signals that Heaven was worried about what humans were doing. The natural environment and political order were seen as entwined, so events such as famines and floods could lead some to wonder if Heaven was uneasy, perhaps even ready to transfer the mandate to rule to a new dynasty. This in turn could inspire groups who were already aggrieved but had refrained from rebelling to take up arms. Emperors struggled to respond appropriately to disasters at the ritualistic and pragmatic levels, knowing their continuing in power depended on them conveying their concern to the populace and their officials finding efficient ways to provide material relief.
Traditional ideas about catastrophe did not suddenly disappear with the 1911 Revolution that toppled the last dynasty or the 1949 one that established the People's Republic of China. And when 1976 witnessed both the death of Mao Zedong, the long ruling Communist leader, and a devastating earthquake, the near simultaneity of these dramatic events were taken as new proof by some of the old idea that the natural and political orders were intertwined.
Where Chinese natural disasters are concerned, though, there has been change as well as continuity over the course of the last century. One shift has been that Chinese people have become keenly aware of things taking place in other places. As a result, when a typhoon like the one that recently battered Southeast China arrives, Chinese leaders may be less concerned with the populace seeing the event as a sign of Heaven's displeasure than with those people being ready to compare and contrast Beijing's response to that of other governments facing similar situations.
Consider what happened when a devastating earthquake rocked Sichuan early in 2008. Many immediately drew parallels between the Communist Party's response and the American government handling of Katrina. Some noted approvingly, for example, that top Beijing leaders were quicker to head to Sichuan than President Bush had been to go to New Orleans three years earlier.
When a cyclone swept through Myanmar later in 2008, additional comparisons were made that again reflected well on China's leaders. Myanmar, some said, was behaving in the outmoded way that China had back in the 1970s, with the authorities trying to block international coverage of a disaster and rebuffing offers of international aid. The fact that Beijing let NPR file reports from Sichuan and worked with foreign aid organizations were presented as clear signs of how far China had progressed since the last great earthquake.
Over time, though, praise for China's leaders had to compete with something new: critical comments that focused on how many school buildings collapsed, even in areas where other structures remained standing, and how many school children died during the Sichuan earthquake. This seen as due to corrupt officials making deals with greedy developers, who then cut corners when building schools.
No government likes to be accused of failing to protect children, but Beijing realized that the factors at play in Sichuan could be particularly damaging to it. In addition to China's long tradition of scrutinizing rulers closely in times of disaster, there was the fact that the Party's Achilles heel has long been the sense that it is riddled with corruption. By the middle of 2008, in sharp contrast to early moves to allow information about the disaster to flow freely, reports about shoddy school construction were being heavily censored. And those who defied bans on drawing attention to the subject suffered persecution. These moves made the notion that the secretive and repressive aspects of Communist Party rule at the time of the 1976 earthquake had been left behind definitively by 2008 much less convincing.
There remains much to admire about the Chinese official response to the 2008 earthquake. And yet, the collapsed school buildings and the hounding of those who tried to draws attention to them are poignant reminders of something that the residents of the city I'm about to head to know all too well, thanks to their experience with Hurricane Katrina. It is seldom as easy as government officials would like to convince us it is for countries to leave completely behind them disturbing legacies and patterns of the past.