Devastating snow evokes China’s stormy history

Times Staff Writer

The image of a catastrophic natural disaster that humbled a powerful leader may have stalked Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao as he made rapid-fire visits last week to areas devastated by snowstorms, but it probably wasn’t Hurricane Katrina. Try going back a few centuries.

In a country where history is never far from the surface, the events back in 1351 and 1644 may weigh on leaders’ minds. In those years, natural disasters led to the downfall of Chinese dynasties at a time of inflation, social unrest and corruption.

“Chinese leaders are very aware of the latent threat behind this disaster,” said Ong Yew-kim, a professor with the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “And Premier Wen Jiabao, who puts a lot of emphasis on history and culture, certainly thinks about this when dealing with this crisis. As we know, there is a life cycle for every dynasty.”

Few see a serious risk to the Communist Party’s grip in the storms that have killed at least 60 people, caused $7.5 billion in damage and left millions of frustrated people struggling to return home for Chinese New Year.

Political upheavals in the last millennium have generally occurred when the government appeared uncaring about public suffering, historians say, leading people to inextricably link the natural disasters with their rulers’ bad policies. That doesn’t appear to be the case today: Despite widespread corruption, the current leadership’s emphasis on helping those left behind has been well received.


“I don’t think people will question the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy because of this crisis,” said Xiao Gongqin, a history professor at Shanghai Normal University.

But that hasn’t eased the worries of the leadership, which is aware of the high political stakes and the potential for public frustration in the world’s most populous country to turn quickly into massive riots.

“China is driven by a desire to maintain order amid fears things could devolve into chaos,” said Scott Kronick, president of Ogilvy China, a public relations firm that has advised the government on crisis management using Hurricane Katrina as a case study, adding that Wen’s appearances and messages last week were effective at helping defuse the situation.

Premier Wen made several well-publicized trips to the hardest-hit areas, meeting stranded railway passengers, visiting relatives of workers killed in the storm and inspecting markets to reassure consumers that food shortages were temporary.

“You’ve suffered a lot,” Wen told frustrated ticket-holders at the Guangzhou station. “You urgently want to go home, and I understand your suffering.”

Even austere President Hu Jintao donned a red hard hat at a coal mine last week, urging miners to work harder at alleviating the storm-related coal shortages that left millions of people without power.

The central government has also mobilized more than a million soldiers and reservists to help clear roads and fix damaged rail lines, assist with relief work and ease cargo bottlenecks, amid reports that 223,000 houses have collapsed under snow and ice and 862,000 others have suffered damage.

Critics say local officials have been the weakest link, with many slow to respond and apparently more concerned with dodging blame than rolling up their sleeves.

“The crisis has revealed that many of our local officials are not qualified,” said Gao Fang, a professor with People’s University in Beijing. “Most are appointed, not elected. Or if they are elected, the voters are often told whom to select.”

The central government has warned local governments to pick up their game, with the implicit threat of career setbacks for those who fall short. The storms will “test the will, resolution and capability” of Chinese leaders at all levels, the state-run New China News Agency said.

Chinese history is rife with cases of rulers toppled by natural disasters, historians said.

In 1351, during the so-called Red Turban Rebellion, inflation-battered peasants rose up against the corrupt Yuan Dynasty leadership after a series of famines and floods, resulting in the start of the Ming Dynasty.

And in 1644, rebel leader Li Zicheng proclaimed himself emperor and captured Beijing after a devastating famine, remaining in power long enough to see Emperor Zhu Youjian commit suicide, leading to the establishment of the Qing Dynasty.

Last week, the party worked hard to manage public perception.

Local, provincial and central governments have issued media “guidance” to soft-pedal coverage, reporters said. “The propaganda ministry has advised us to consider social stability our top priority,” said one newspaper reporter in the hard-hit southern province of Guangdong, who asked not to be identified. “And they’ve encouraged us to concentrate on positive stories about hard-working officials who solve problems.”

Reporting on deaths has been particularly sensitive, said a Chinese reporter in the southern province of Jiangxi, adding that he thought the actual nationwide death toll was much higher than 60.

“At first they blocked reporting on almost all deaths, except for those of model workers,” he said, also requesting anonymity. “In the last day or two, however, that changed as provinces realized they might not get emergency funding from Beijing if they hushed everything up.”


Yin Lijin and Zhang Guangqin in The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.