The blizzards and associated transportation breakdowns in China of the past couple of weeks have started to raise political questions. Indeed, any time a prime minister feels he has to publicly apologize for the weather - or the way in which public services failed to handle bad weather - it is occasion for political analysis.
Howard French, in an IHT article, does a good job in getting things started. His key point is that the snow disaster reveals certain weaknesses in the PRC political system:
The real scandal of China's weather emergency is that it had been going on for weeks, largely uncovered and not treated as an emergency for most of that time. That is because the heavy snows that have been accumulating in central China were falling on places far out of the spotlight.
There is an inclination in autocratic political cultures to think that allowing the press to report freely would constitute subversion and destabilize the government. On the contrary, elections and the freedom to criticize are important not just because they help keep politicians honest, but because they serve as escape valves for pressures that could become dangerous otherwise.
Peter Ford, at the CSM, also finds a good quote:
"The Chinese economy is not a real market economy, nor a real command economy, so government controls are not very effective," says Xu Guangjian, an economist at People's University in Beijing.
Taken together, these points remind us that the PRC has an overly centralized political system with insufficient public accountability and a not-yet-fully-marketized transitional economy - and these structural factors will, from time to time, manifest in large-scale public works failure.
We could, of course, make the comparison to the US, with its different political and economic conditions, and remember that these sorts of failures can happen in any system, as Hurricane Katrina demonstrated.
But there is reason to believe that the political stakes of such problems are higher now in China than they are in the US. And that is because of the changing nature of political legitimacy in the PRC.
In the Maoist period, or even the early reform period, when Marxism and socialism were still the foundation of state legitimacy, the Party could rally people together to "struggle against the snow." I witnessed this back in 1984 when large snow storms hit Nanjing and people came out in force to contribute to the collective effort to clear the streets. Perhaps more importantly, the New Year's holiday was less important to state legitimation then than it is now. Under Maoism, family ties were clearly subordinated to the state, and everyone was supposed to sacrifice and pull together for the glories of socialist construction.
All of this has changed. These days, no one really buys the Marxist narrative that an authoritarian "dictatorship of the proletariat" is necessary for the advancement of the historic mission of socialism, and that "scientific socialism" should define personal identity and social relationships. Since the 1990s the Party has embraced a neo-traditionalist legitimating myth: the CCP is now the heir of China's historical greatness and traditional notions of social responsibility and propriety should define personal ethics and public action. Confucianism has made a comeback and vies with capitalistic individualism for social relevance. Old Marxists are few and far between.
Chinese New Year's thus takes on more political significance. It is a time for performing and reinventing tradition. People want to go home, back to the village, to reinvigorate family ties. There is a deep sense of history in all of this: it is what Chinese people have done from time immemorium, or so many now believe. If the government, therefore, screws up and makes it impossible for people to do the right thing on Spring Festival, then that is a big, big problem. It is failing not only in terms of modern standards of public transportation and infrastructure but also in terms of traditional duty and ritual.
We could push it a bit further - though I do so with a bit of trepidation. Traditionally, when natural disasters occurred, it could be taken as a sign that the current regime had lost the "Mandate of Heaven." When natural disaster is combined with insufficient government response, political legitimacy is doubly called into question - Heaven is signaling its displeasure and the Emperor is not getting the job done. Chinese people of a certain age might remember the horrible Tangshan earthquake of 1976 as a precursor to the death of Mao and, ultimately, the fall of Maoism.
This year's snow disaster is not nearly as bad as the Tangshan earthquake, and perhaps its political effects will be limited.
But the legitimacy question remains. If the government cannot deliver on popular expectations of continually improving standards of living, and if claims of China's historical greatness start to ring hollow because millions of people are stuck in train stations instead of enacting the proper New Year's rituals, and if fat and happy bureaucrats are seen as corrupt and aloof, then the legitimacy of the one-party rule could be undermined.
That's why Wen Jiabao, who presents himself as a modern-day Mencian leader was faster to apologize than George W. Bush.