Sunday, May 25, 2008

Brit in a China Shop

Simon Winchester's Why Oh Why whine on China.
from the Guardian Comment is Freee

Last week saw a classic example of a venerable tradition in British journalism - the "Why Oh Why" whine, notable in old Tory publications, which laments how the world has gone to the dogs since the end of empire, lack of respect for elders, the election of the first Labour government and so on. It was from author Simon Winchester - who really should know better. It was in the New York Times rather than the Daily Telegraph, but the genre was the same. Why oh why, he pontificated, "if the Chinese had come to know so much about earthquakes so early on in their immensely long history, were they never able to minimize the effects of the world's contortions - to at least the degree that America has? Why did they leave the West to become leaders in the field, and leave themselves to become mired, time and again, in the kind of tragic events that we are witnessing this week?"

China, he lamented, "in its headlong attempts to modernize, has often demonstrated a dismayingly cavalier attitude toward the well-being of its people: skyscrapers are built with little attention to safety standards and are invariably far from earthquake-resistant; huge dams ... are erected in a slapdash fashion; subways, like the system burrowing through the waterlogged alluvium beneath Shanghai, are built with incautious haste; freeway tunnels are bored through earthquake fault zones."

Now while I would certainly question Beijing's weak attachment to human rights, and lament that progress there can mean a bullet in the neck instead of the death of a thousand cuts, it really does not behoove the people who gave us the Minnesota bridge, the collapsing apartment blocks of New York, the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown, to sermonise about this disaster. While the Three Gorges dam is very likely a disaster waiting to happen, how many American dams are in a similar position? A lot.

Should the society which kept people at gunpoint from fleeing New Orleans across a bridge during Hurricane Katrina really have the chutzpah to hector the Chinese? Should a society that uses taxpayers' money to build non-hurricane proof homes on the coast in flood zones really lecture Beijing? No more, one suspects, than Army Corp of Engineers who have carved the Mississippi basin into a series of serial disasters-in waiting.

Within a week of the Winchester whine a British coroner reported that the Nimrod aircraft the RAF had been flying had been unsafe for four decades. One only has to think of the appropriately Thatcheresquely-named Herald of Free Enterprise ferry that drowned so many passengers, to remember the Cumbrian nuclear reactor whose name keeps changing to induce forgetfulness about its sequential radioactive leaks.

China has launched humans into space. Britain, unlike Japan, China and India, has no independent launch facility, and has cut back its commitment to the European programme. It has recently been forced to pull out of science programmes because of government cuts.

So why oh why, the "Why oh Why" whine? Simon Winchester has an excuse. He is clearly plugging his new biography of Joseph Needham, the magisterial author of the Cambridge History of Chinese Science. But one suspects that Winchester's subject would not have been so disdainful of modern China. His biographical work should have helped him to "see oursel's as others see us". On this occasion, the rulers in Beijing seem to acquitted themselves more honourably in the face of a huge unpredicted earthquake than those in Washington and Louisiana in face of the predicted Katrina.

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