A government's moral fiber can be judged by the way it treats its most vulnerable citizens, and its competence gauged by how well it serves them when disaster strikes. So it's instructive to compare the excellent response of the Chinese authorities to the devastating earthquake in Sichuan province with the callous and lethal incompetence of Myanmar's officials in helping the victims of Cyclone Nargis.
Myanmar nearly doubled its official death toll last week to 78,000 and raised its count of the missing -- most of whom must by now be presumed dead -- to 56,000. The belated admission of the scope of the disaster, which did not come as news to the rest of the world, was apparently delayed so that the ruling junta could stage a mock referendum rubber-stamping its self-serving changes to the nation's constitution while storm victims were dying by the thousands. Two weeks after the storm, ruling Senior Gen. Than Shwe finally put in an appearance in the ravaged zone, but officials didn't come with enough food even for the people who lined up to see him. Spurred perhaps by calls to invoke the international “responsibility to protect” Burmese storm victims against the failures of their government, the junta on Monday agreed to allow in some Southeast Asian relief teams. But it's not clear how much even the United Nations will be permitted to help, a mortal insult to the 2.5 million victims facing hunger and disease.
In contrast, the prompt and sensitive response of the Chinese authorities to the devastating quake reveals the evolution of a regime that, while still by any definition oppressive, understands that its legitimacy depends on earning the respect of the governed (at least when the governed are Han Chinese and not Uighurs or Tibetans). The government sent in 130,000 troops, President Hu Jintao toured the afflicted region, and local officials acknowledged that shoddy construction and possibly corruption might be factors in the collapse of school buildings. With the death toll mounting, the once-xenophobic government saw nothing humiliating in accepting foreign relief teams from Japan, Taiwan, Russia and South Korea.
The disaster unfolding in Myanmar should prompt China to rethink its unwavering support of a near-absolute right of sovereignty even for regimes guilty of crimes of commission or omission against their own people. If China continues to enforce its anti-interventionist policies in the U.N. Security Council, thwarting international efforts to squeeze regimes in Sudan, Zimbabwe or Myanmar, then it has a particular obligation to pressure those regimes in private to mend their pitiless ways.