Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Earthquakes, Cyclones, Superstition….and Political Change

Today, NPR’s Morning Edition had a very interesting conversation with reporter Frank Langfitt, who spent more than five years in China as a correspondent for the Baltimore Sun.

The subject: the politics of natural disaster in China.

Besides discussing how politics are influencing the response scene, about three and a half minutes into the conversation, Langfitt talked about natural disasters in Chinese political culture.

He explained that in this view, major natural disasters such as floods, famines and earthquakes can signal the end of what’s known as the Mandate of Heaven.

Similar to the Divine Right of Kings, under this concept, the heavens bestow powers to earthly leaders. Should the celestial forces be displeased with the way those leaders are wielding power, they will take those powers away – and can signal this change with a great natural disaster.

Journalist John Pomfret of the Washington Post takes this further in his blog, Pomfret’s China:

“On July 28, 1976 at 3:42 A.M., an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter scale shook Tangshan, a coal mining town to the east of Beijing. Sixteen hours later another 7.8 trembler rocked Tangshan again. Chinese official sources say 242,000 died, making the Great Tangshan Quake the deadliest earthquake of the 20th century and the third deadliest of all time.

“To the Chinese, however, the Tangshan Quake didn't just spell disaster, it augured change. Six weeks later (on Sept. 2), Chairman Mao died, ending the Cultural Revolution and sparking a battle to change China won ultimately by Deng Xiaoping. Two other major Communist figures had already "gone to meet Marx" that year.

“Natural disasters in China mean more than they do in the West. Many Chinese hold a view that the government is responsible for maintaining the harmony under heaven. If the earth buckles and shakes, it's a harbinger of political or social upheaval.

“China's Communist government spent decades trying to stamp out superstitions and feudal beliefs such as these, but it has failed. The last two decades of economic reform have sparked an explosion of traditional beliefs and a renewed interest in Chinese Buddhist-like sects.”

Today’s Chinese leaders may publicly eschew superstition, but I suspect that Frank Langfitt was rught when he said they this quake has probably rattled them internally, making them ask what it all means under the Mandate of Heaven. (How does I Ching, the Book of Changes, relate to the Mandate of Heaven? Read about it here)

Whether by Mandate of Heaven, Divine Right of Kings or common sense,here’s one florid example of not using power responsibly: we turn our attention to the military government of Myanmar, formerly (and preferably, to many) known as Burma.

Reports from that secretive military state in the wake of Cyclone Nargis have been alternately chilling, repulsive and infuriating. The international community continues to plead with the ruling junta for access to deliver aid to the hundreds of thousands of survivors in dire straits, but are met with one ridiculous rule after another: visas denied to aid workers, demands that all relief supplies be distributed only by the government. Many say that the government is hoarding these relief supplies for itself, while it distributes rotten food to the cyclone survivors. (More from the BBC, World wrestles with Burma aid issue.)

Newsweek’s Melinda Liu notes the Myanmar government is missing in action.

“The 400,000-strong military kept an unusually low profile last week, suggesting serious dysfunction at the top. Sr. Gen. Tan Shwe, the nation's leader, was nowhere to be seen. Buddhist monks and nuns appeared to be spearheading community clean-up campaigns—although state censors instructed the media to report only on military relief efforts. But some troops seemed more concerned with social control than social welfare. Instead of helping emergency services, for example, some soldiers conducted surveillance of local NGO staffers who were offering free funeral services to the bereaved families, according to Aung Zaw, a Burmese exile and editor of The Irrawaddy, a Thai-based magazine about Burma.

"Burmese dissidents who planned to sabotage the [constitutional] election (scheduled for May 10th)," he says,"feel the cyclone has done their work for them" by driving ordinary Burmese into the arms of the opposition. Many citizens in this superstitious country seem to believe that the storm represented nothing less than divine retribution—cosmic payback for the violent sacrilege committed by the junta last September, when the military put a bloody end to the "Saffron Revolution." Crowds of monks had taken to the streets with an estimated 100,000 civilians to protest the country's deepening economic hardships, including an abrupt fuel-price hike. The regime responded with fury, beating and imprisoning clerics and laypeople alike and killing as many as 138. Now many Burmese see the monster cyclone as proof that Than Shwe and his junta have lost the "mandate of heaven"—the supernatural right to govern.”

Liu looks to other countries to see what natural disasters can do to regimes.

Mexico City, 1985: “After a massive earthquake hit, the authorities and the country's aloof president, Miguel de la Madrid, went AWOL for days, leaving citizens to organize rescue efforts themselves. When the president finally did appear, he initially announced that Mexico "didn't need outside help." With more than 10,000 estimated dead, survivors had quickly taken to the streets to denounce the government's weak response. These protests energized a new crop of community activists and opposition leaders, lighting a spark that eventually brought down Mexico's long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) years later.

Tangshan, China, 1976: “By the time that quake hit, killing up to 600,000, the Cultural Revolution was nearing its end, Mao was ailing and moderate leaders were already plotting to oust his most zealous accomplices. When the government then proceeded to badly fumble relief efforts— refusing international aid, among other things—it strengthened the hand of reformers who wanted to end China's isolation. Three months later, Mao was dead, the extremist "Gang of Four" was behind bars and the reins of power were passing to Deng Xiaoping—now famous for his unabashed embrace of capitalism.”

“In each of these cases, the chain of events leading to political change was long and complicated, but the governments' incompetence in the face of great tragedy helped tip the scales.”

"One shouldn't count out Burma's leaders yet. The military has managed to cling to power for 46 years now, despite losing an election in 1990 to the party of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi who's been under house arrest nearly ever since.

And the regime has a ready reply to deny it has now lost its heavenly mandate. In 2005, heeding astrologers' advice, the officers moved the country's capital from Rangoon to Naypyidaw, a hardscrabble town some 250 miles north. This location helped the new capital escape the worst of Nargis's wrath—though of course it's unclear whether this was a sign of blessing or just dumb luck. Still, the generals must know that surviving a cyclone is one thing. Avoiding the human earthquake it provokes is a whole other matter.

Read Melinda Liu’s article Winds of Change