Sat, Sep 09, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Johnny Neihu' s NewsWatch: Disaster! China has our number

Sick of living on the Ring of Fire? Been blown away by a typhoon once too often? Then haul ass to China, where officials have worked out how to eliminate heavy-duty death tolls. Johnny does the math.

By Johnny Neihu

In 1999, the 921 earthquake destroyed lives throughout central and northern Taiwan. More than 2,400 people were killed, not counting those who died in post-traumatic circumstances (suicide, early death from debilitation, etc).

But when the Chinese government, through the Red Cross Society of China, kindly offered to donate aid, many of us at the time were outraged by what seemed to be a callously, insultingly small amount of cash (US$100,000), according to our own Taipei Times in a report on Sept. 25, 1999. Then foreign minister and current Taichung Mayor Jason Hu (胡志強) likened Beijing's apparently obstructive behavior to "a robbery committed during a fire."

There's much more to this than meets the eye. As you will see, the Chinese had a perfectly good reason to offer that sum. Skeptical? Bear with me.

Apart from inheriting a 5,000-year-old civilization, the Chinese are famous for inventing things. And not just objects and practices that Westerners closely associate with Chinese culture, such as chopsticks, gunpowder, footbinding and female infanticide. We're talking things that people from other nations and cultures in their presumptuousness had assumed were their own: soccer, golf, pasta, clocks -- even toilet paper.

But Chinese ingenuity has its limits. There are some things so far beyond the control of humans that even the Chinese seem unable to invent a remedy. These are things we will do well simply to understand. One of these is devastation -- Mother Nature's occasional but brutal reminder of who is in charge in the long term.

The reason I raise this, dear reader, is that lately there have been reports of disasters hitting China. Earthquakes, drought, typhoons -- they all make an appearance. But the news is not all bad. Apparently, the news is splendid.

On Aug. 26, Agence France-Presse (AFP) quoted the state-backed Xinhua news agency as saying that an earthquake struck Yanjin, Daguan, Yiliang and Suijiang counties in Yunnan Province. Xinhua reported widespread destruction, yet the death toll was miniscule.

You would think that in most countries this would be a miraculous thing. In Yunnan's case, something extraordinary must have happened for everyone to be out of their houses at the same time the quake started shaking. You may even wonder why foreign correspondents relaying information from Big Red's media outlets do not add the customary warning sentence: "The figures could not be independently verified."

Perhaps, my more paranoid readers might suggest, this is because reporters are not allowed to verify them. Surely, you bluster, this is a latter-day example of book-cooking in the tradition of the "In agriculture, learn from Dazhai" (農業學大寨) campaign that hoodwinked Mao Zedong's (毛澤東) masses for a decade.

You would be wrong. The Yunnan death toll is not as far-fetched as it sounds. It is perfectly plausible that on that frightening day, the good men, women and children of the four counties were attending public executions at the sports tracks of local elementary schools.

But enough speculation; time for some facts.

The reason Yunnan suffered so little is because a coalition of Chinese meteorologists, rescue workers and engineers invented a powerful tool that allows death tolls to be calculated without weeks of clawing through rubble and hunting down missing people. And this is why confident toll figures are issued so quickly in China's state media -- and rarely increase in subsequent days.

This story has been viewed 4140 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top