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China's Year Of Disasters Breeds Discontent

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This has clearly been a very troubled year for China. Immediately before Chinese New Year, the worst snowstorms in 50 years paralyzed travel, cut off power and supplies, and created a refugee crisis. Soon thereafter, demonstrations in Tibet turned deadly and led to a clamor of international condemnation and calls for boycott of the 2008 Olympic Games, scheduled to start in Beijing, China on August 8. The clamor about human rights re-opened the issues of Chinese involvement in Sudan's Darfur genocide, and support for the regime in Burma. Burma itself experienced Cyclone Nargis on May 2 and 3 this month, killing perhaps 100,000 people.

Now China has experienced the Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008 which is their largest earthquake since 32 years ago, when the Tangshan earthquake killed over 240,000 people. The 2008 death toll is now estimated at 50,000 and may still rise further. Over 4 million homes are thought to be damaged or destroyed.

In the wake of the earthquake disaster, Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng has already called for the cancellation of the Olympics. IFCSS has called for the Olympic torch relay to be curtailed, because it is set to go through the disaster area between now and the Olympics. Both Wei and the IFCSS have also suggested that "less is more" for the opening ceremony of the Olympics. It is true that Olympic opening ceremonies are ostentatious displays of conspicuous consumption, and that advocates for disaster victims now want Olympic resources to be diverted into relief and recovery efforts, which are sure to be costly in the affected areas.

For most Chinese, when they hear in the news of government spending in preparation for the Olympics (35 or 40 billion dollars), one thing that they know for sure is that those sums of money are not hitting their pockets. It is an enormous amount of government spending -- some would say waste -- and, it is not going to them. At a time when China needs humanitarian relief, the Olympic spending breeds resentment. The Chinese government is also the butt of grumbling on four more earthquake-related issues.

First, some people feel that the government could have predicted the quake and provided warning to residents. Chinese officials were able to predict and warn residents in Haicheng to evacuate, one day in advance of its earthquake in 1975. In advance of this year's quake, a self-described seismologist posted a warning on the Internet, but government officials dismissed the post as rumor. It said, "I predict China will have an earthquake on May 12, 2008. The approximate location will be in the middle of Sichuan and Hubei, though all China may feel the tremors." Now, angry bloggers are expressing sentiments such as- "Why should we tax-payers spend money on you high officials in the National Seismology Bureau? The head of the National Seismology Bureau should resign from his position." Another blogger, less polite, said "The China Earthquake Administration should die."

Second, it is very suspicious when a new building collapses while older buildings around it stand. A report in the Globe and Mail cites a local construction worker with knowledge about the Juyuan Middle School in Dujiangyan, which collapsed upon 900 students. "Local officials...pocketed money that was budgeted for the school, while a private construction company had saved money by cutting corners on the project....To boost its profits, the company used iron instead of steel in many parts of the construction of the building. It cut back on the size and number of steel braces in the cement foundation slabs. And it used cheap materials to make the concrete walls, weakening the entire structure. The supervising agencies did not check to see if it met the national standards."

Third, the occasion of this earthquake is bringing renewed attention to China's "one child per couple" policy. It is a hideous policy which has led to human rights abuses such as forced abortions and sterilizations -- and steep fines for families which are out of compliance. The children killed in this earthquake tend to be "only" children, meaning that they are the entire progeny of their parents. Western news reports have highlighted the cruelty of this situation, and the earthquake will lead to calls for ending the one child policy, as well they should.

Fourth, the government is in trouble with the Chinese democracy movement. The China Support Network has remarked, "Premier Wen Jiabao visited the disaster area, and promised that 100,000 troops would be used in the relief efforts.

"That's remarkable, because when it was time to shoot unarmed protestors out of Beijing's Tiananmen Square, the government called out 300,000 troops. Let's compare these numbers, 100,000 versus 300,000. Tiananmen's massacre took three times as many troops!

"So now, we can see the government's priorities. Today's disaster is important, but only one-third as important as stopping democracy and free speech! And, if the government has the capacity to call out 300,000 troops, it suggests that two-thirds of them are idle right now. Have they got their feet on the desk while China reels from disaster?"

In imperial China, earthquakes traditionally signaled the end of a corrupt dynasty. This earthquake has done no favors for the corrupt regime of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The people have growing anger, and lower expectations, for the CCP on the basis of this, the latest in a long sequence of Chinese disasters.

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The author was once the 18-year-old candidate for U.S. President ('84) and later the founder of the China Support Network, post-Tiananmen Square.
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