The most recent estimates of the casualties of the magnitude 7.9 earthquake centered in Sichuan Province suggest that upwards of 30,000 persons have been confirmed dead, and that as many as 100,000 may be unaccounted for. The tragedy, as Rod Dreher has observed, is more profound than even the enormous loss of life itself; owing to the inhumanity of China's one-child policy, many families have lost their only children, and with them, the possibility that their lineages will continue on this earth. The death of a child is an incomparable loss, for which there can exist but one terrestrial consolation, that a family will nonetheless continue, and honour the memory of its departed members. For many of these families, this loss, however, represents the prolepsis of the end, the blotting out of their memory from among the children of men.
Compounding this unutterable tragedy is the knowledge among the locals that it was largely unnecessary, that it might have been averted, but for the kleptocratic ways of local government officials, who appropriated for their own employments funds allocated for construction projects, skimping on materials as compensation:
In the city of Dujiangyan, which is closest to the quake's epicenter, the UK's Guardian newspaper reports residents there furious over the shoddy workmanship and substandard materials used in many of the buildings that collapsed around their families. Many of them blame local officials for selling off the high quality materials that should have been used in these buildings and putting the money in their pockets. The same government functionaries then signed off on certifications that these structures were built according to local codes and ordnances, even thought that they knew them to be incapable of surviving even small tremors.
"The contractors can't
have been qualified. It's a 'tofu' [soft and shoddy] building. Please, help us release this news," one local resident pleaded with the Guardian's correspondent.
City residents were particularly angered by the collapse of the Juyuan High School, pointing out that this much newer building folded like a house of cards while considerably older structures--most conspicuously local PLA offices and other government buildings--were left standing.
"About 450 [students] were inside, in nine classes and it collapsed completely from the top to the ground. It didn't fall over; it was almost like an explosion . . . why isn't there money to build a good school for our kids?" shouted several at the site. "Chinese officials are too corrupt and bad. These buildings outside have been here for 20 years and didn't collapse--the school was only 10 years old. They took the money from investment, so they took the lives of hundreds of kids. They have money for prostitutes and second wives but they don't have money for our children. This is not a natural disaster--this is done by humans."
Reuben Johnson, writing in the Weekly Standard, also observes that
the corruption that is endemic with construction projects in almost any dictatorship has turned out to be a casebook example of how bribe-taking and the general greed of local authorities in China is worsening--and showing just how catastrophic the consequences of these practices can be.
The significance of this is that it undermines the legitimacy of the Chinese political economy, the centrally-administered neoliberalization of the Chinese economy that has brought an uneven prosperity to the nation, and in which the material benefactions of such enlightened despotism are supposed to secure legitimacy in the absence of democratic structures and practices. China, in other words, is supposed to be a dictatorship, yes, but unlike all of those other, nasty dictatorships in which the governing elites deny political freedom, yet rob their nations blind, leaving the people poorer and more wretched then they were previously. The justification of the Chinese Communist Party's retention of monopoly political power is supposed to be its provision of material benefits, its governance in the interests of the Chinese people, whereas democracy might well - given the unevenness of the prosperity and the grosser forms of exploitation rampant in the economy - undermine that material advance, promoting the very fissiparousness that is the terror of every Chinese politician and political scientist.
And the Chinese model might succeed - but only if its officials are relatively impeccable. If they are, China might instantiate its own version of the Asian economic miracles earlier generations have witnessed in Japan, Korea, and elsewhere. If not, then, the Chinese authorities fear, everything could be negotiable: not merely their power and prerogatives, but the very stability and integrity of the nation. The historical precedents are ample, and this is part of Chinese national mythology. As Johnson observes elsewhere, with each generation, particularly in the era of rapid economic modernization, the central government has grown a little weaker, and provincial officials bolder in engaging in corruption, to their own benefit, and to the manifest detriment of those they rule.
The Chinese ascendancy is merely probable, and not certain, for reasons of this nature. While the rise of China portends much ill for America, economically, and threatens to alter various geopolitical balances of power, a reversal of that rise, or a broader political crisis within the Middle Kingdom, portends its own set of evils. That, we must acknowledge, is the nature of history: there are no sunlit uplands, often only a choice of worldly evils, and how to manage them.