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. Walker's World: Get rich and shut up

"The social contract of modern China is that in return for public quiescence and hard work, the government will provide economic growth and rising prosperity. It may be summed up in the slogan used with wry fatalism by some Chinese students in the United States, "Get Rich and Shut Up.""
by Martin Walker
Washington (UPI) Oct 1, 2007
The iron hand of Asian repression has succeeded once more, at least for the moment. Just as in the bloody crackdown in Beijing's Tiananmen Square nearly 20 years ago, the troops of Myanmar obeyed their orders to crush peaceful dissent.

Most of the world protested. Even the Parisian practitioners of modern realpolitik, the French government and its Total oil giant, were shamed to the point that both Total and President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that Total would make no new investments in Myanmar. (Along with China's state-owned energy giants and Malaysia's Petronas, Total is one of the biggest investors in Myanmar's massive oil and gas reserves.)

But China blocked any condemnation at the United Nations, while hinting it quietly deployed its influence for restraint on the military junta of Senior Gen. Than Shwe. Beijing now goes into its Olympics Year knowing its own grim record of domestic repression has now been refreshed in the modern memory by its connivance in the foul regimes of Sudan and Myanmar.

China may feel a certain relief that matters were not worse in Myanmar, that the Internet connections were squelched in time to prevent too many images of rifle butts slamming into the shaved heads of monks. Beijing's rulers, as they head into their version of representative government with this month's Party Congress, may feel that they struck the right bargain after Tiananmen Square.

The bargain, in effect the social contract of modern China, is that in return for public quiescence and hard work, the government will provide economic growth and rising prosperity. It may be summed up in the slogan used with wry fatalism by some Chinese students in the United States, "Get Rich and Shut Up."

This is not an altogether bad bargain, so long as Beijing's power elite delivers the goods, which so far it has done with highly impressive speed and considerable good sense, with massive investments in modern infrastructure and education. Beijing has used its political power to ride roughshod, in a way the democratic system of India cannot, over local objections to change, to polluting development, to forced re-housing in the name of development and so on.

But there are other prices to be paid by the Chinese public, beyond their surrender of political rights, and one emerged with striking force last week, just as the Myanmar protests were reaching their peak. Two separate news stories emerged from a two-day forum in the city of Wuhan on environmental issues relating to the massive Three Gorges Dam. The first story, intended for domestic consumption, noted that there were some difficulties but that they were being addressed and everything was under control. The second story, for foreign consumption, was the untrammeled and alarming truth, that an ecological disaster was unfolding.

Or as the official Chinese news agency Xinhua put it: "Chinese officials and experts have admitted the Three Gorges Dam project has caused an array of ecological ills, including more frequent landslides and pollution, and if preventive measures are not taken, there could be an environmental 'catastrophe.'"

"Tan Qiwei, vice mayor of Chongqing, a sprawling metropolis next to the reservoir, said the shore of the reservoir had collapsed in 91 places and a total of 36 km had caved in. Frequent geological disasters have threatened the lives of residents around the reservoir area, said Huang Xuebin, head of the Headquarters for Prevention and Control of Geological Disasters in the Three Gorges Reservoir. At the forum he described landslides around the reservoir that had produced waves as high as 50 meters, which crashed into the adjacent shoreline, causing even more damage," the Xinhua report said.

Waves of 160 feet are tsunami levels. There was more: crumbling embankments downstream, alarming blooms of algae, heavy silting of the river above the dam because the slowing of the Yangtze's usual flow had allowed the silt to fall to the river bed, which meant in turn that the reservoir was holding less water than planned, which implied reduced electricity production down the line.

The Xinhua story also reported that about $1.5 billion had been spent on defensive measure against geological disasters such as landslides -- on top of the $22.5 billion cost of building the 600-foot-high dam and its five-tier locks to allow ships to pass. But the silting upriver is cutting into the ability of ships to navigate upstream.

Democracy is no guarantee against such disasters, but an open system of political debate and a transparent process of decision-making on major projects do allow contending views and dissenting voices -- and concerned scientists -- to be heard. The saga of the Three Gorges dam suggests that two of the qualities on which the Beijing regime most prides itself, its technocratic skills in knowing what the country's economy needs and its ability to get things done and achieve great projects with efficiency and speed, are not exactly working as planned.

That is the cautionary warning not only for the ruling powers of Beijing, but also for the wretched generals of Myanmar who have mismanaged and abused one of Asia's most richly endowed countries and turned it into an unproductive pauper. China demonstrates that autocratic rule, even when highly intelligent and competent and well-intentioned, is no guarantee against disaster. Myanmar demonstrates that autocratic rule with incompetence will guarantee disaster.

And as the protector and chief customer and arms supplier to the Myanmar generals, China's responsibility is heavy. And we have already begun to hear calls in the European Parliament and elsewhere for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics. Beyond embarrassing the regime, such calls are likely to have little effect on China. The prospect of some long-distance events being held elsewhere, because of the dangers to athletes of Beijing's horrendous levels on pollution, will have rather more.

One way or another, China's people are beginning to learn that a social contract based on "Get Rich and Shut Up" has some extra price tags attached.

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Go East old man: Neanderthals reached China's doorstep
Paris (AFP) Sept 30, 2007
European Neanderthals, modern man's ill-fated cousins who died out mysteriously some 28,000 years ago, migrated much further east than previously thought, according to a study released Sunday.

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