Obviously, it’s bad news that the Chinese government is now rushing to evacuate survivors in case a dam created by the earthquake breaks. But it’s been interesting to me to watch how the Chinese government has responded to the crisis, because it seems to signal the culmination, or at least a further development, of certain trends in Chinese governance.
I was in China in March, in part working on a story about how the Chinese government has forged partnerships with American universities, including Harvard and Georgetown, to provide continuing public policy education for Chinese civil servants. One of the folks I talked to, the incredibly generous and helpful Dr. Lan Xue, the Executive Associate Dean of School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University (the equivalent of MIT), said that two areas the civil servants he’d worked with over the past five years have grappled with are crisis management and public relations. Until the outbreak of SARS in 2003, most Chinese ministries didn’t have spokesmen, much less the armies of public relations officers that government agencies here employ, and they didn’t have the sense that people wanted information on a regular basis. So it’s interesting to see someone like Wen Jiabao, who has been quick to recognize and feed that hunger for information, rise to the fore in the aftermath of the earthquake.
Dr. Xue said it was important to remember that the Chinese and U.S. governments view crisis through very different lenses, SARS and civil unrest, and 9/11, respectively. I never got anywhere near Tibet during my time in Beijing and Shanghai, which roughly coincided with some of the worst of the rioting and crackdown, but it was obvious from the Channel News Asia in my hotel going dead mid-broadcast, and from a cabbie’s absolute refusal to take me and my father to Tianamen Square, that yes, they do things differently in China.
But the Chinese government has made big committments to these American-run programs, and the American professors I talked to emphasized that they haven’t been pressured to teach any particular content or in any particular way. It’s clear the Chinese government thinks its employees have something to learn from the American approach to governing, and it may be that some of those ideas are catching on.