Letting China be China: Retelling a Tale of Two Storms

Probably a good place to start this is with The Wall Street Journal comparing Hong Kong’s recent typhoon to Beijing’s flood, under the headline Hong Kong vs. Beijing: A Tale of Two Storms:

At least 37 people died in fierce rains that lashed China’s capital city over the weekend, prompting flooding in various neighborhoods and structures to collapse in the downpour. Many residents were highly critical of how the city’s infrastructure failed to successfully weather the storm, with many asking why the city, with its all its investments in dazzling Olympic facilities, could still experience such deadly floods. By contrast in Hong Kong, while a handful of scattered flooding incidents were reported, Vicente appeared to pass through without doing any serious damage.

Let’s leave aside that these were two very different storms. Though wet, tropical cyclones are mostly wind events and most damage comes from storm surge. Hong Kong never went over an Amber rainstorm signal during the recent typhoon. That’s the lowest of the three rainstorm signals.

Let’s instead talk about comparisons and expectations.

Flooding in Yunnan, photo by Dennis Kruyt http://www.flickr.com/photos/phantagom/

Before I left to teach English in China, I sat on the porch with one of my best friends who had recruited me into the job and was trying to cover every base, so to speak, of what to expect in China. I tried getting a fifteen-minute Chinese lesson and walked away with “ni hao” and “xie xie.” I also asked her what her best piece of advice was: let China be China.

I quizzed her on what she meant by that. “Don’t judge China by American standards. Also, you’re not going to change anything. Just accept it for what it is,” she told me. And it was great advise. I’ve also come to understand it works both ways – don’t judge China by American standards, but also be careful not to expect China to be like other “third world”/developing countries. I had at least two teachers in my employ who flew into Shenzhen expecting rice fields and conical hats. I personally expected a police state and endless grey factories. Beyond the superficial, there are a lot of similar issues that look and behave differently in China than they do elsewhere.

It’s important here to stop for a moment and talk about the limits of this thinking. A variant of this is often used in Chinese media to excuse all sorts of things I don’t intend to. This doesn’t cover specific decisions by leadership in Beijing. This doesn’t cover the “zhongguo(ren) shi zhe yang de” that’s often thrown out as cover for awful behaviour. I think what is covered by “let China be China” are the kind of things that would still happen if, say, Liu Xiaobo and his Charter 08 friends were magically handed controls over governance and free and fair elections were taking place. I think it covers the background culture, institutions, statistics, and systems. The two are, of course, not neatly separated and it reminds me of a colleague who argues that internationalization is the good parts of an increasingly interconnected world and globalization is the bad. If only it were that easy.

But there are nonetheless legitimate reasons to expect Hong Kong and Beijing to be different. Even more clearly, there are reasons to expect Hong Kong to weather a storm better than Beijing. Beijing is especially vulnerable both because it’s an ancient city and because it’s experience one of the fastest rates of growth in the world. Think of it this way: the mean population amongst all countries in the world is 34 million people and the mean size is 768,000 square kilometres. Beijing is about 2/3s that population packed into 2% of that land area. In 1953, when the infrastructure of modern Beijing was being built, the population was about 1/6ththe current size.

Beijing Metro, by Tricia Wang 王圣捷

It’s a city that’s run at overcapacity on a daily basis. It’s not surprising then that it would cough and sputter when something freak weather strikes. There’s no spare capacitive space for new problems. So judging Beijing on its own terms, there shouldn’t be much surprise that it flooded.

Further, I’ve been hearing complaints that the sewerage system in Beijing wasn’t up to task and they didn’t send SMS’s warning about the alerts. To which I reply that, most cities have rapidly outgrown their sewerage systems. Hong Kong still dumps raw sewage into the surrounding seas (though no longer directly into Victoria Harbour since a few years ago). Concerning SMS, it’s a good idea – but not one that Hong Kong is doing. Every storm update I had came from mobile apps. Thus here we’re not even taking Beijing on its own terms. We’re expecting more of Beijing than a city with a GDP/per capita higher than Switzerland.

But there’s another component to this – who gets impacted by natural disasters.

Pushing past these fundamentals of how the storms and cities and responses are different, the theoretical tableau behind this is the political economy of disaster. A storm is just a storm, it takes vulnerable people to make it a natural disaster. As I wrote in my IJED paper, “disasters are just triggers inside of loaded socio-political landscapes with varying degrees of vulnerabilities.” The poor are disproportionately impacted in nearly every natural disaster for a multitude of reasons. Clustered inside Beijing’s dense web of concrete and humanity are a lot of different vulnerabilities. There is significantly less vulnerability in Hong Kong, such that a friend living in one of the most expensive parts of the city reported barely even hearing a Category Four storm raging overhead.

And this is where I think a lot of people are getting it wrong, though for good reason. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to typologize China. It is, after all, the second wealthiest country on earth as measured by nominal gross domestic product. There is a glitter and show of China’s rise. New skyscrapers shoot up with amazing regularity, the airports put America’s to shame, and entire neighbourhoods are levelled to build nearly identical shopping malls only a few hundred meters from another luxury shopping mall. The government talks a nuanced talk that puts other, richer, more powerful governments on an equal footing with them mostly by talking them down.

I wasn’t living in China long before I started visiting the Philippines and I kept noticing something: the poor often don’t look poor in China, especially compared to the Philippines. From the outside, their houses don’t always look too different than the ones I’ was living in. And this was contrasted with Manila slums looking pretty much what one expects a Manila

Photo by SlapAyoda

slum and its occupants to look like. In my final year in China I remember looking out the window and seeing a construction worker eating sugar cane when it hit me: it’s difficult to even see under-nutrition and hunger in China, even though it’s likely rampant (though we would never know because of how the government treats that sort of data). Perhaps part of it was that so many Chinese restaurants were so incredibly cheap (for me) that I couldn’t imagine anyone not having ample food.

I think China-watchers, expats, and perhaps even the Chinese forget that poverty is in and around them. It’s not just the crazy guys who look like they dug a tunnel between two cities. It’s also the fruit vendor wearing clean, polyester clothing that approximately mimics your own. It’s the construction worker who with a tucked-in collared shirt. I lived in the equivalent of a Chinese slum in Shenzhen and it looked, felt, and behaved differently than the more archetypical Manila slum. There was running water, sewage, electricity, and no visible street children. We have to take China’s inequality and poverty on its own terms, and that’s what it looks like in the big cities.

But if we strip it down to raw numbers, let’s think of it like this: 36.6% of China lives on les than US$2 a day and 15.9% live off less than $1.25/day. Using my favorite poverty gauge, the Multidimensional Poverty Index, 12.5% of China is “multi-dimensionally” poor. This means they lack three (or more) of ten basic livelihood indicators ranging from having drinking water within a 30-minute walk, to having a floor, to asking whether anyone in the household was deprived of all educational access. Let’s look at that other country I’m most familiar with, the Philippines. 45% of the country earns less than $2/day, 22.6% less than $1.25/day, and 13.4% are “multi-dimensionally “poor. Looked at from a different angle, China has a human development index score of .687, the Philippines .644. The Philippines has a Gini coefficient (an inequality measurement) of .44, China .42.

The poverty is different in a hundred ways, but the vulnerability remains. Where China is primarily different than the Philippines is in money. China has a GDP/per capita of $8,382 and the Philippines is half that. The Philippines is getting

Manila slums, photo by viewfinderview

substantially more “development”, or at least human development, per dollar than China is. Seen in this context, the vastly different cityscapes of Beijing and Manila make sense. But both countries have similar levels of vulnerability, and prevalence of extreme vulnerability, amongst their least fortunate citizens.

This same storm that hit Hong Kong visited the Philippines as a tropical depression (a much less powerful storm), wherein two people died and six remain missing as I write this. Last year, almost a thousand people died in a city I visited a few years back when a typhoon came through unexpectedly. While conducting research in September of last year, I too was caught in a typhoon where almost a hundred died the closest town was submerged. I was shown photos of the Cabanatuan hospital where the water was waste deep for days.

The point I get at with this is that countries like the Philippines tend to have a lot more casualties during natural disasters because “socio-political landscapes with varying degrees of vulnerabilities” in disaster zones edges towards vulnerability. Neither people nor systems (like sewerage) are resilient enough to handle shocks in low and middle-income countries. Which leads to the beginnings of my conclusion: China is a middle-income country, similar to the Philippines (and many other countries) with huge swaths of poverty sorrounding pockets of wealth. That poverty translates into vulnerability, especially when a natural disaster strikes. Three of the top five deadliest natural disasters in the past hundred years have been in China. It’s almost impossible to wrap ones head around the fact that nearly 100,000 people died in the Sichuan Earthquake just in 2008 – a year that will likely be seen as an unambiguous early pinnacle of New China’s rise, before the political and economic turbulence that’s since followed.

And in this context, I find 37 deaths in a middle-income megacity of 20 million during the heaviest rain in decades surprisingly small (though there are rumors it will be revised upwards). There are just too many structural elements in the development level of China for that not to happen, I feel. Make no mistake; there would be hundreds – maybe thousands –dead in a proportionately large storm in Manila (or Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, et al). That, for me, means something, even if it doesn’t for the victims of this tragedy. It’s an extremely difficult line to straddle, however, between expecting these sorts of casualties and accepting them. In my mind, the outrage is misplaced. Expecting them can and should lead to better planning.

Manila flooding. Photo by Jörg Dietze, Oct. 2009

I think a key issue here is that China is a victim of its own success. Increasingly, people are looking at the new skyscrapers, Olympic ceremonies, and growing power and identifying this with China. They can’t understand how the country that built the Birds Nest and the new CCTV Tower can also be so… third worldy. And in that context, I feel what many are implicitly calling for is actually more inequality – they want Beijing to be even more an island of development surrounded by a sea of poverty and inequity. The floods ‘out there’ seem to be more acceptable than a flood in the capital.

But it’s all part of the same political, social, and economic system. China needs to do a lot more to prepare for natural disasters. I’m honestly upset over the fuss over what happened in Beijing when there appears to still be almost no basic disaster preparedness in schools. The first cadre estimate out of Sichuan estimated that perhaps 19,000 children died inside schools. I did a lot of research up there and feel that was a better number than later, oddly symmetrical estimates. None of them had learned what to do when an earthquake strikes. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen fire escape routes in any classroom I’ve ever taught in in China.

This was a once in three or four decades flood in Beijing. The next earthquake or landslide in China is right around the corner and will probably kill orders of magnitude more people. We have to keep our eye on the ball instead of focusing on microblog chatter and the optics of Beijing losing face with flooding. The issue, for me, isn’t about Mandates of Heaven and Legitimacy Theory (however interesting it is on its own terms). It’s about addressing the a more simple and common vulnerability found in countries with development statistics like China has.

Yes, SMS messages should have been sent out in Beijing. But in Ningxia and Yunnan too. A stronger meteorological warning system needs to be build around the country that incorporates a little bit of “this is China” – meaning, leave it to underlings to issue warnings based on pre-agreed parameters. Remove the cadres entirely from the decision making process. Buildings collapsed in Beijing, but it’s certainly a hundred fold worse in smaller cities. Even in rich Shenzhen, half the city lives in “rural” housing that has never been subjected to permits or inspections. It’s all illegal and will likely fall down if pushed. It’s also the only affordable housing option for the average Shenzhen’er. Perhaps independent building inspectors – matched with funding for reinforcements and renovation – is a great way to trial a future anti-corruption program. Perhaps most importantly, people all over China need to be informed of what potential risks exist in their homes, schools, and offices and what they should do should that emergency come.

I’ll end with saying that I know I’m dancing a thin line here between analysis and apologetics. I know some people will be angered and whole-heartedly disagree. My comments section is open and I reply to most challenges to my thinking, facts, or logic. But I leave with this thought: there’s a tension between excusing something and expecting it. I hope I’m falling on the side of saying that we should expect it so that we can better prepare.


  1. Paco said:

    You raise some good points here. In short, is it any surprise that 37 people died from a massive rainstorm in a country with GDP per capita on par with Angola? Nope. (BTW, the official death toll has since risen to 77 though microbloggers are speculating numbers in the hundreds if one includes the countryside)

    That said, I think your detailed explanation misses an important point.

    If you look at the online discussions and public debates in the aftermath of the storm, much of the discontent was not really along the lines of “how could such a thing happen in the Great Middle Kingdom?” but rather focused on the shortcomings and hypocrisies of the Chinese social apparatus that this natural disaster has helped unveal.

    For example —

    1. Fake drainage systems! Microbloogers uncovered manhole covers in the capitol city with nothing but concrete underneath! No piping or “hole” at all!

    2. Nearly all public services were shut down but road TOLL BOOTHS remained opened and operational around the city!

    3. Police promptly issuing traffic tickets immediately following the storm to people who abandoned their cars along the road in order to seek shelter.

    4. Unscrupulous hotels charging exorbitant rates for people seeking refuge, in addition to suddenly enacting ‘one-occupant-per-room’ type rules.

    Regarding your point about SMS, one of the state carriers (China Mobile?) actually came out subequently to clarify that they did in fact have the technological capability to issue such mass alerts, and that network-wide broadcasts have in fact been used for government/official applications. They simply weren’t told to do anything in this particular case. Besides, when it comes to monitoring/surveillance activities like locating mobile users and broadcasting messages, China has technology that far supercedes its GDP peers.

    August 1, 2012
    • Trey said:

      My point was not to defend, bu to say we should expect these kind of things. Aside from the fenqing and comical Global Times op-ed writers and “hurt the feels” government PR guys , I haven’t met a lot of people who talk about the “Great Middle Kingdom.” Most are doing everything they can to send themselves or their children out of the country, if it’s possible. Most Chinese people see their country with even more cynical eyes than the resident expats, who are often myopically focused exclusively on human rights issues and the ever-annoying Great Firewall. The problems in China run much, much deeper than that and they will for decades to come.

      For instance, point 1 – was it “face saving” or more run-of-the-mill contracter fraud/corruption?

      August 1, 2012
      • Paco said:

        Agree with you completely. And if they can’t get themselves or their children out of the country, and least take out their money in bags of cash to buy up apartments in Hong Kong!

        August 3, 2012

Leave a Reply