Posted by: Bruce Einhorn on May 14, 2008
The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page is not the place you usually find praise for the Chinese government. But the paper’s Asian edition today has kind words about Beijing’s handling of the devastating earthquake in Sichuan. Comparing the Chinese government’s response to that of the Burmese junta’s handling of the aftermath of the cyclone, the Journal writes “Beijing has learned from its mistakes. In 2003, it took two months for Beijing to allow foreign experts into Guangdong province to help with the SARS outbreak. Yesterday, China welcomed outside help as well as deployed 20,000 soldiers to the region. This not only assists the millions of earthquake victims, but it helps bolster the Chinese leadership’s image to its people – no small thing when you’re not popularly elected.”
Also in the Journal, Costas Synolakis, a professor of civil engineering at USC, says the earthquake would not have been so deadly if Chinese authorities had done a better job enforcing building codes. “From initial reports, the geographical distribution of destruction suggests that near the center of the industrial city of Chengdu, where the damage has been limited, building codes had been enforced. But in the rural areas – which were hit hardest – these codes weren’t followed.”
That’s not surprising. Synolakis points out that it’s common in developing countries for the damage to be worst in the countryside, where enforcement of building codes is typically weak. It’s also true in China that the central government has difficulty enforcing all sorts of rules and regulations in the provinces. In the U.S., people often assume that the government in Beijing must have a tight grip on the country. It’s a Communist country, after all. But whether the government is cracking down on copyright piracy, limiting spending on wasteful projects, or getting builders in rural areas to follow codes designed to limit damage from earthquakes, there’s a limit to its ability to enforce its will in areas far from Beijing. If there’s anything positive that comes out of today’s tragedy in Sichuan, it’s the likelihood that the government will have an easier time enforcing building codes that might make the next big earthquake to hit China less deadly.