Outside View: The new China Syndrome

By HARLAN ULLMAN, UPI Outside View Commentator  |  May 29, 2008 at 4:20 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 29 (UPI) -- Thirty or so years ago, the phrase "China Syndrome" was the battle cry of the more radical elements opposing nuclear power. The meaning was clear. A catastrophic nuclear reactor failure here would melt all the way through the Earth and end up in China -- a warning that was as ludicrous as it was dead wrong.

Today, the disastrous earthquake in China's Sichuan province yields a newer meaning to that phrase. Given China's response to this great tragedy, "China Syndrome" could easily mean competence and compassion. Because, unless the Chinese exercised masterful control of media reporting, foreign as well as domestic, every indication is that their government and public dealt with this swath of death and destruction professionally, compassionately and with dignity -- attributes that were not all present in how this nation handled the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans. Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao immediately flew to the region to take personal charge. More than 50,000 People's Liberation Army soldiers, along with other rescue workers, were deployed to Sichuan. Reportedly, 5,000 soldiers were parachuted in.

The video images recorded the destruction, from tiny villages to the city of Chengdu. While the death toll continues to climb as more bodies are recovered from the rubble, at least 40,000 perished so far. The soldiers and rescue workers appeared well prepared, well equipped and anxious to provide aid. The media carried dozens of stories about the rescue effort and individuals who were tireless and unflinching in saving survivors and giving comfort and solace. The entire nation was fixated on the disaster and rallied to lend support. All of this was obvious from the reporting on television and in the press.

At a time when the military junta ruling Burma remained oblivious to the destruction wrought by Cyclone Negus and rejected offers of outside assistance, China was the polar opposite. Given the very negative press China was getting over Tibet and the Dalai Lama and the international pressure to move or sanction the Olympic Games to be held in Beijing in August, the response to this earthquake seemed surprising. After all, the general perception in the West of any autocratic regime is its indifference to its people. That surely was not the case.

Why China responded the way it did to this disaster and why the United States responded the way it did to Katrina will make an interesting topic for journalists and political scientists. Unlike the United States, where, given the many competing political and organizational jurisdictions among cities, states and Washington and police and emergency services, no one was really in charge in New Orleans, such problems and realities did not hamper China's rescue effort. And so far there has been no Chinese equivalent of FEMA's former head Michael Brown, immortalized by President George Bush's accolade, "You're doing a heckuva job, Brownie!"

So here is a lesson to take away from this earthquake and China's responses. How ready are we for the next disaster? Let's find out. At the end of August and the first four days of September, the Democratic Convention will take place in Denver at the Pepsi Center and the Republican Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul at the Xcel Center. Earthquakes or hurricanes are unlikely at either locale. But some form of man-made incident is a very real prospect, whether with massive protests of the kind that wrecked the 1968 Democratic Convention in Detroit or a terrorist attack designed to panic, maim or kill tens of thousands of attendees and put our political process in turmoil.

The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News have been reporting confusion and an absence of planning on Denver's part in preparing for its convention. The press has been silent about the state of play of security for the Minneapolis convention. Why not then conduct an examination of the readiness of both cities to deal with potential crises during their conventions? Who would conduct such an examination is a good question.

To keep politics out and to do this evaluation objectively, neither the Department of Homeland Security nor state agencies should be employed because charges of lack of fitness and politicization would fly. Better choices are the military's Northern Command or Congress' Government Accountability Office, which are sufficiently able and non-political to carry out an objective review. But the point is that these conventions offer tempting targets for disruption.

My bet is that at one or both sites, after such an assessment, the old meaning of China Syndrome would prevail. A disaster would not find its way to China. It would, however, reverberate to the worst interests of this country by further demeaning the process by which we choose presidents, and competence and compassion would not be our longest suits. But let's not wait to find out.


(Harlan Ullman is a columnist for The Washington Times, which first published a version of this piece.)


(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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