Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Philip J Cunningham

Tragic events can galvanise a nation in a way that brings out the best in people.

When the event is on the scale of the Sichuan earthquake, and the nation is China, individual acts of heroism and generosity multiplied by hundreds of millions creates an atmosphere that is transformative and inspirational.

Tragic events can also bring out the worst in a nation, as can be seen in the parallel tragedy of the cyclone in Burma, where government ineptitude, greed and paranoiac self-preservation have stifled domestic relief efforts at home while refusing or bottlenecking humanitarian aid from abroad.

China and Burma share the stigma of being Asian countries with political systems seen as antithetical to Western values. Even savvy critics mistakenly assume that China has the kind of commanding influence over Burma that the United States has over, let's say, Iraq.

China, to its credit and detriment, avoids the sort of active intervention that US flag-wavers favour. But China's ideological consistency on non-intervention, whatever its merits, grows less convincing as China grows.

Growing economic clout embeds and engages China in a global economic order while heating up the hunt for scarce natural resources. Complete neutrality is not an option.

The sheer scale and volume of China's manufacture and trade impacts life across the four seas in myriad ways, raising the spectre of economic invasion and financial intervention, not to mention the detrimental effects of trade in weapons and other things bad for human health.

Long before it became the factory floor for the world, long before it became a prime lender to a cash-starved America, long before it had the reach to score oil deals in Sudan and Iran, China was castigated for not being open enough, global enough and capitalist enough.

China was subject to stinging derision for its appalling poverty within recent memory. Though larger in scale, it once bore a resemblance to the Burma of today: isolated and ingrown,
destitute and inept.

In contrast, half a century ago Burma, with its booming rice exports, inspirational Buddhism, bilingual education and British infrastructure, was in a far better situation than abysmally poor China, which was still in recovery from the convulsive destruction of war, revolution and other man-made disasters.

But China has leapt forward, greatly beyond even Mao's wildest dreams, and the world is still adjusting to this unexpected pre-eminence.

China, too, is adjusting. The ruling Communist Party often seems anachronistic, unsure of itself and untrusting of its own people - witness the continual crackdowns on domestic media and information flow.

The ham-fisted handling of the Tibet riots did nothing to improve China's image at home or abroad, even if its crackdown on Tibetans was not as violent as emotional journalists and bloggers, stirred by the moral prestige of the Dalai Lama and miffed by the lack of access, would have one believe.

The anti-CNN, anti-Carrefour mood that swept across China on the coattails of the Tibet crisis had a unifying effect on Chinese popular sentiment, but was not without traces of reactionary xenophobia and Han chauvinism.

While accusations of Western media bias and careless reporting were fairly well documented, the intolerant conspiracy theories that flowed from flawed media reports were not conducive to further conversation.

Sadly, it took a natural disaster for China to snap out of its giddy, uneasy chauvinism and the shock of looking into the abyss for the Western press to snap out of its condescending sniping. The shock and horror of the tectonic shift knocked scales from the eyes, bringing out humility and humanity on all sides. China has shown its stoic, heroic side shorn of hubris; jaded China-watchers have shown an outpouring of sympathetic reporting shorn of pique and ulterior motive.

More ironically yet, it took a natural disaster in China for Burma to begin to get its own act together in dealing with devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis.

The latest TV news shows Burmese flags at half-mast, Burmese leaders making site inspections in the storm-wrecked Irrawaddy delta and a sudden improved access for foreign humanitarian aid that had been blocked too long for no good reason.

Did this all come about because the likes of First Lady Laura Bush ridiculed Burma, singing praise of US-funded Radio Free Asia even before the floodwaters receded? Did this week's improved access of aid to Burmese cyclone victims in dire need come about because hot-headed French, British and US politicos hinted at regime change and invasion?

Highly unlikely. Rather, it was China, struggling with its own mega-tragedy, who showed Burma how to do it right. Not by invoking Katrina or threatening bombs and waterborne invasion, but by making a positive example of itself.

China set a no-nonsense tone of humility conducive to getting things done; it was open to foreign assistance, open to foreign journalists, foreign medical teams and, most importantly, open to the sincere concerted efforts of ordinary Chinese to help their fellow countrymen.

It is the latter, not the nervous government officials, who are the real heroes of the relief effort; ordinary Chinese made it clear as they streamed out on the information highway and onto the muddy, broken roads of Sichuan, that they would settle for nothing less than an open and honest response.

Beijing, to its credit, picked up on the tone set by its vanguard citizens, appropriating the symbolic power of unconditional relief, magnifying the mourning of a provincial tragedy into a unifying national event.

Impatience with the callous intransigence of the Burmese government is understandable, but condescending nagging from politicians looking to score points was counter-productive.

China helped Burma to open up a bit, not by angry words or preaching or threats, but just by doing the best it could under dire circumstances.

When disaster response is as dysfunctional as it was in Burma, the inspirational nudge of a neighbour may not be enough, but China's quiet example has lit a path in the darkness, showing a possible way out.

(Originally appeared in Bangkok Post) Philip J Cunningham is a free-lance writer and political commentator