This winter brought unprecedented cold weather to south China; sustained sub-zero temperatures, freezing rain and snow left citizens struggling to keep warm. The extreme weather resulted in power cuts and paralysed road and rail links across the country, stranding millions at bus and rail stations and on ice-covered roads. The timing exacerbated the situation: the Lunar New Year is always the busiest time for China’s transport networks. In the worst-affected provinces of Hunan and Guizhou large areas were without power or even water. One hundred million people were affected across 19 provinces, causing economic damages to the tune of 50 billion yuan (almost US$7 billion), the State Council said.
Chinese reports increasingly describe the country’s weather as unusual: “the worst flood in a century”, “the worst drought in decades” and now “the worst snows in half a century”. But the more these “rare” weather events occur, the less rare they become. Extreme weather is on the rise in China; abnormal weather is becoming the norm. As China cleans up after this latest disaster, we should ask ourselves why we are so weak in the face of these events. Extreme weather may become an unavoidable part of global climate change, but that doesn’t mean it has to have such serious consequences. We need to consider the cause of the problem, but also look at the social and structural factors that worsen its effects.
The sequence of disasters that has hit China in recent years shows how economic growth has been achieved at an environmental cost. We now face grave ecological challenges. Political and social issues, however, are intertwined with problems caused by the ravages of the climate. These issues worsen and accelerate the effects of weather disasters, and introduce new complexity and uncertainty in China’s process of modernisation.
The snows strongly illustrated the economic development gap across different areas of the country, as well as problems with the household registration system, the one-directional nature of population flow and the strength of traditional ideas in China. The consequences of these problems were also mostly felt by the lower and middle strata of Chinese society. The mass migration at New Year is held up as evidence of strong links to home villages, but in fact it is caused by genuine need. The media called for migrant workers to spend their holiday in the cities, and ignored their wish to return home after a year or more spent away. Yet migrant workers struggle to survive in the cities and face discrimination; their return home is a spiritual refuge as much as it is a holiday. The workers trapped at the train stations are the very foundation of Chinese society; they should be able to settle in our cities without migrating annually. It was the extreme weather that stopped them travelling, but what forced them to make the trip in the first place?
Local governments in south China pulled out all the stops; local leaders headed for the frontlines, and they deserve to be applauded. But congestion, price rises, power cuts and energy shortages still occurred. The disaster did not happen overnight: its effects were worsened by slow response and the inefficiency of the over-centralised power network. A lack of preparedness and transparency – perhaps even including misinformation – were responsible for chaos in Guangzhou on February 3, where a railway station stampede left one dead and one injured. Exaggerated, positive reports meant travellers who had already left the railway station returned, putting too much pressure on railway staff. Problems with coal delivery and energy supply cannot be entirely blamed on the weather either. As certain newspaper reports noted, a lack of communication and insufficiently robust administrative systems may have been equally to blame.
Despite this grave state of affairs, reporting was insufficiently serious. In the news reporting of the disasters, people wanted to know what was happening, and the media in Guangdong province provided full and prompt reports. At a national level, however, there was more propaganda than news, causing a certain level of confusion.
China has recently seen a number of “once in a century” disasters; our environment is quietly – perhaps unavoidably – changing. Dealing with natural disasters will become a more frequent undertaking. The government can be left to deal with one-off events, but society will need to mobilise and protect itself from ever more frequent disasters. The country’s failure to deal with large-scale disasters, from organisation and management to communication and coordination, demonstrates an imbalance between economic development and socio-political modernisation. This cannot be solved by politicians or propaganda. Civil society and public ethics are needed to guide the improvements.
As I write, the cold weather continues, but eventually it will ease and the crowds will disperse. When will the next disaster strike, however? Environmental action alone will not combat the social problems that will arise or worsen with greater disasters. Sustainable development requires that politics and the environment are given equal consideration. The efforts we make will not stop disasters happening, but they will better equip us to deal with them and reduce losses. With the foundation of a modern economy now in place, we must develop civil society and the ability of the population to mobilise, building a modern politics and a modern society. It is essential for our survival.
Tang Hao is a newspaper columnist, deputy editor of Shimin (Citizen) magazine, and assistant professor of politics at Huanan Normal University. His essays and opinion pieces have appeared in Contemporary International Relations, International Studies, Nanfang Daily, Yangcheng Evening News, Southern Window and many other publications.
Read more: Three R’s for surviving environmental change by Cleo Paskal
Homepage photo by monkeyking