These days, we’ve been pretty down on China. Trashing the Dalai Lama just puts people on our bad side. Some of our best friends are practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayana, for those in the know.) One of our clients actually has a character reference from the Dalai Lama.

Aside from that, China is bad for our economy. Last spring, our Chinese neighbors were planning a trip home to see their families, and wanted to take some presents with them. It occurred to them that it would be kind of pointless to give their folks in China presents plainly marked “Made in China.” So they asked us to recommend someplace they could shop to get US-made goods. After a fair amount of research, we finally pulled it off—the Vermont Country Store catalog, with its marvelous stock of grown-in-America maple sugar goodies. But still, that’s scary.

So anyway, this week, as we were thinking our usual bad thoughts about China, we picked up on news coverage of, on one hand, the cyclone in Burma, and on the other, the earthquake in China. The junta in Burma has been so busy pushing through the referendum for the new constitution that they barely noticed the cyclone. They have grudgingly allowed various foreign governments and NGOs to send them rescue supplies, but they won’t allow foreign rescue workers into the country, and can’t be bothered to mobilize their own resources. Some of our favorite blogs are musing about the possibility of invading Burma, for the good of its own people. (No, we are not using the name Myanmar. It’s not the original name, it’s not the name preferred by the people, it’s the name created by the junta. Foo.)

And, on the other hand, China is doing a splendid job of dealing with the earthquake. Within hours, they had, literally, boots on the ground—the People’s Army is actually good for something, and the Prime Minister was out amid the ruins in his hard hat, in considerably less time (as the BBC reporter snarkily pointed out) than it took Bush to visit the survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Not only is the army doing its job, the government is enthusiastically welcoming donations of food and rescue supplies and any rescue workers who can get there.

Obviously, part of the difference is a matter of resources. China has them, Burma doesn’t. The free market is good for something, too. But the Burmese junta is not even willing to ask other countries and NGOs for the resources it needs, or even to express concern and compassion for the victims of the cyclone. Talk may be cheap, but it is still too costly for the junta.

We’re not trying to revive Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s distinction between totalitarian governments (bad) and authoritarian governments (not great, but better.) The Chinese and Burmese governments are both, strictly speaking, authoritarian. But some kinds of authoritarianism are clearly better than others. We’re not about to let China off the hook for its treatment of Tibet, but we should be giving credit where credit is due

Jane Grey

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