The first thing to do in response to the horrendous flooding in and around Beijing over the weekend is to express condolences to the families of the 37 (at least) people who died. It must be truly devastating to lose loved ones in such a manner. Also, concern must be expressed for the many, many thousands of people who had to be evacuated, a good number of whom will have lost their homes and possessions. A terrible event all around. My in-laws were flooded out of their house last year, so I have some sense of the difficulties involved.
Beyond the immediate human tragedy is a broader political dynamic, however. Already, complaints have surfaced on the Chinese internet, raising questions about the competency of government authorities in handling the crisis. China Real Time Report states:
News of the storm spread rapidly on social media, where users posted video footage of flooded intersections and where messages of support appeared alongside pointed questions about how a city that spent billions building facilities to host the Olympics could struggle so badly in dealing with a thunderstorm
Among the sharpest criticisms came in the form of a series of photos, posted to Sina Weibo around midnight, contrasting Beijing’s flooded streets with images of sewer systems in other famous capitals, including Tokyo’s massive “Underground Temple” flood prevention system.
“Sewers are not a face-giving infrastructure project,” artist Li Yijia wrote in response to the images, repeating a sentiment widely expressed elsewhere on the site.
Central authorities are sensitive to such criticism, since infrastructural development is often held up as proof of the efficacy of Chinese style authoritarianism. The Beijing Municipal Committee Department of Propaganda has put out a directive on how to spin the story in the Chinese media to deflect criticism. They appear to be worried about a political backlash.
That worry stems from the nature of regime legitimation under authoritarianism. without regular elections to provide a basis of electoral legitimacy (i.e. there is no opportunity ever to "throw the bums out"), an authoritarian regime has to rely, instead, on what has been called performance legitimacy. The implicit pact of domination enables the party to maintain political hegemony without democratic opening and in return it will provide for society certain public goods, especially economic growth and social stability. This has seemed to work for the CCP over the past three decades.
The challenge, however, comes when public goods are shown to be inadequate. Slowing economic growth, as now seems to be happening, is most often discussed in this regard: slow growth could increase unemployment, causing more people to question the efficacy of authoritarianism and call for some sort of political change. There have yet to be any significant system-challenging political movements in the PRC, but the political elite seems nervous about the growing pressure for some sort of transformation.
This is where the rain and floods come in. The failure of Beijing's drainage infrastructure, a public good, raises questions about the overall efficacy of the regime. If it cannot deliver the goods at this level, then questions arise regarding broader ineffectiveness and corruption. In the context of a one-party authoritarian system such pressures are exacerbated because the regime is the only plausible responsible party. It claims authority for economic success and thus has to accept blame for public goods failure, even in very specific circumstances like the Beijing drainage system.
Performance legitimacy also operates in democratic regimes. The failure to respond effectively and humanely to Hurricane Katrina did weaken the administration of George W. Bush. But this kind of backlash can be more pronounced in authoritarian systems, because to criticize the ruling party is to criticize the system itself. In the US, Bush could be blamed without endangering the political system as a whole, because the system included other political parties and actors. Not so in the PRC, where the CCP systemically represses any other significant political organization.
And there is, of course, that knotty traditional notion of the Mandate of Heaven. Natural disasters were historically taken as signs that a Chinese emperor may have been losing the right to rule, as determined by a diffuse sense of destiny and fate in the classical Chinese notion of "heaven." I wrote about this four years ago when epic snow storms shut down the rail system during Spring Festival, prompting an in-person apology from Primer Wen Jiabao. I am not one for ancient superstitions, but there could be a way in which people in China conceptualize their frustration with ineffective provision of public goods as a general sign that the regime is losing the Mandate of Heaven. And if that is the case, it could take more than media spin for the regime to regain political momentum.
i imagine Hu Jintao and company are hoping for clear skys in the coming days....