Wed, Jul 30, 2008 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: China’s long row to hoe

Any Chinese tourists who picked up a newspaper here earlier this month would probably have been intrigued to read the frank discussion of the government’s performance following Tropical Storm Kalmaegi.

The storm killed 20 people and left NT$1.05 billion (US$34 million) in crop damage on the heels of severe flooding that inundated fields and left farmers reeling last month. In the eyes of the disaster-weary Chinese, the damage and death toll would surely seem miniscule. At the same time, the right to ask questions about why the weather bureau did not issue a stronger warning ahead of Kalmaegi, or who is responsible for the inadequacy of the drainage system in parts of the country, is a critical ingredient to pursuing progress, and one conspicuously lacking in China.

There, in the wake of an earthquake that left 70,000 dead and another 20,000 “missing,” authorities have responded to public calls for accountability with threats and detentions.

Activist Huang Qi (黃琦) was arrested for “holding state secrets” after publishing articles online that took a critical look at the state’s response to the Sichuan disaster. Chinese local authorities have swept under the carpet probes into what has turned out to be a chronic problem: “tofu” schools, the substandard and unsafe buildings that are an unmistakable product of corruption. Reports indicate that grief-stricken parents who try to take their petitions to Beijing have been physically blocked from leaving their hometowns.

But it is precisely this demand for accountability that China so desperately needs if it is to make progress on such basic services as safe schools and efficient disaster-response mechanisms. Frustration would seem to be mounting in China, but the authorities, although painfully aware, have offered little more than a semblance of government accountability. They simply went through the motions of probing corruption after the Sichuan quake.

Elsewhere, in a classic case of tokenism, the authorities last week specified three locations in Beijing where demonstrations would be allowed during the Olympics.

The designation of protest zones seems to have been a charade intended as much for the international community as for local people, as the news was also reported in China, where such developments are sometimes only released in English to appeal to an international audience.

Unfortunately, applying for permission to rally in these areas would be, as some dissidents have said, like walking into a trap. Beijing police are out in full force to prevent anyone with a genuine grievance from coming anywhere near the zones or the thousands of reporters swarming into the Olympic city.

Ye Guozhu (葉國柱), who was due for release on Saturday after serving a four-year sentence for applying to hold a peaceful demonstration in Beijing against forced evictions, was immediately moved to a new detention center for safekeeping until the Games have passed. Also last week, police told Tiananmen Square Massacre activist Qi Zhiyong (齊志勇) to leave Beijing for the duration of the Olympics or be arrested.

Looking across the Strait, it is difficult not to recall Taiwan’s authoritarian past. As the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee noted last week, Chinese law, and indeed the Constitution, guarantees the right to demonstrate peacefully. But it would seem that progressive Chinese — much like the Taiwanese 60 years ago — have a long and bitter fight ahead of them if they are ever to exercise that right without fearing retaliation from the government.

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