Sat, Aug 29, 2015 - Page 8 News List

Disaster politics reveal true colors

By Lin Thung-hong 林宗弘

Shortly before midnight on Aug. 12, there was a huge explosion at a hazardous chemical storage facility in Tianjin. According to the official account, the explosion left 184 people dead or missing and 721 injured, of whom more than 50 are still in serious condition. Toxic substances such as cyanide were also released into the atmosphere, an issue that has yet to be dealt with.

The Tianjin blast is similar to the gas explosions in Kaohsiung last year in that it is yet another costly lesson in disaster politics. Both occurred in port cities and involved import/export risk management, and both are the tragic consequences of development policy incentives introduced during periods in which authoritarian regimes have been in place, when local residents were poorly informed about the risks involved in the petrochemical industry and had no means with which to express their concerns.

Meanwhile, the firefighters entered the disaster scene with neither sufficient information nor equipment, which only increased the number of casualties.

A comparison reveals some differences between democratic and authoritarian systems. Studies in disaster politics show that disasters are a threat to those in power, and that this threat comes from two areas.

First, disasters cause economic losses, especially in their impact on tax contributions, with the government sometimes having to pay for reconstruction and compensation to the disaster victims. Second, disaster victims and the public might feel dissatisfied with the government’s response, resulting in social protests and a political crisis.

However, there are also differences in how the powers that be respond to disasters under the respective political systems, democratic or authoritarian.

In a party-state authoritarian regime, the cadres’ freedom to act depends entirely upon the evaluation of the senior levels of the regime, and has nothing to do with the public. It is therefore in their best interests to restrict information as much as possible, and to control the media, suppressing figures on fatalities and injuries or estimates of economic losses, thereby reducing pressure on government finances.

At the same time, they can foster the impression that the government is doing all it can in dealing with the aftermath of the disaster, allowing ill-trained, ill-equipped fire services to stake on the risk, and even capitalizing on deaths of members of these services for nationalist propaganda. Cadres will be preoccupied with reducing the government’s financial burden as a result of the disaster, trying not to give their seniors cause to investigate their handling of the matter, and with preventing public criticism or mass protests.

In a democracy, while the government will do all it can to contain the potential media circus, it cannot restrict freedom of expression. Allowing civic groups and people on social media to participate in the response effort is helpful to the process, the fire services are better trained and have better rights guarantees — if, that is, members have been allowed to form a union — and politicians, to keep the public happy and to limit damage, will generally be willing to broaden the definition of disaster victim and the level of compensation available to them.

How they react, and their courage in committing to reconstruction, often allows politicians to turn crises such as these to their own benefit, as can be seen in the high number of votes Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu (陳菊) won in her re-election following the Kaohsiung gas explosions and her response to them.

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