When I left the Biology Education Conference in Henan China in the summer of 1998, it began raining. And it rained in the headwaters of the Yangtze Valley and to the north in Harbin for the proverbial 40 days and 40 nights. More than 233 million people were temporarily dislocated—that is close to the entire population of the United States. Five million houses were destroyed. The People’s Liberation Army—operating in a similar way to our National Guard—arrived and took charge from the very beginning, providing trucks to evacuate people and blowing dikes upriver to protect cities downriver. But the rain kept falling.
This major flood went little-noticed in the West, but it stands in contrast to our recent disaster response.
Chinese authorities knew that only a military operation can make the minute-by-minute decisions that save lives in a natural disaster. Civilian bureaucracies, with unclear lines of command, require hours and days for consensus-building, and that time costs lives.
Chinese authorities also knew a thing or two about planning.. We knew the New Orleans dikes were inadequate to withstand a major hurricane...but we failed to fortify them. China knew the Yangtze would suffer major flooding again and again, and they were building the Three Gorges Dam. Those 1998 floods essentially ended any opposition to that project. And today, the upper Yangtze is controlled. When I traveled that river in 2002, before they finished the largest dam in the world, I was amazed at the transformation that was well underway. The people of the old, low-lying villages—where life resembled Depression-era Appalachia—were being evacuated to brand-new cities built up on high ground and well out of danger. China is its own biggest market, and rebuilding households for 233 million people supercharged their economy.
But adopting the Chinese approach to flood control to the U.S. would be difficult. When the Army pulled in with trucks and told the countryfolk of Jingjiang that they would have to load up immediately...the dikes would be blown tomorrow at noon, everyone reluctantly cooperated. The older generation still has memory of life being tragic....“hen ku.” They “swallowed their bitterness” and left most of their possessions, their hard work, behind. Could our National Guard drive into Topeka and Wichita and give the same order to evacuate in order to save Kansas City? Hardly. We have “our rights.” The Chinese recognize a larger responsibility and are willing to make the sacrifices.
Western China-watchers have been predicting that the next century belongs to China. After witnessing their ability to handle natural disasters, and our recent difficulties, I suspect they are right.