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Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2008

When snow falls on China and Japan


LOS ANGELES — Snow has been falling on two of the world's greatest cities — lightly on Tokyo, brutally on Shanghai.

Whether anything can or should be made of this comparative weather differential is questionable, of course. But suddenly it does seem a lot colder in China than in Japan.

Let me explain.

The Japanese tend to take the ups-and-downs of fortune and misfortune — not to mention the weather — with the serenity of time-tempered vision. "Little white flakes are falling on Tokyo, like tiny crystal cherry blossoms," e-mailed one of my best friends, living happily in Japan's sprawling and slightly snowy metropolis. "It is all very pretty."

It is true that neither the Japanese economy nor polity is getting any prettier, but neither is it getting any uglier. After being nearly frozen solid in the 1990s, the economy warmed up a little during the sunny spring of Junichiro Koizumi's five years as prime minister. The current prime minister — Yasuo Fukuda, 71 — is no ball-of-Koizumi, that's for sure. But in the few months he has held the job, he's been anything but an embarrassment, serving Japan with steadiness and decency.

And a generation beneath him percolates an almost hidden class of tremendous political talent. One has a sense that the Japanese frost will melt before too long and a spring will be back in its step.

By contrast, the recent stormy weather over Shanghai — China's most populous city — virtually shut down parts of the nation, which has been a showcase of the most celebrated economic success story of the last decade or more.

According to Xinhua itself, the country's own official news agency, major slices of central and southern China were all but snowed under. Almost countless areas were without power, water and transportation. Beijing's response was apparently feeble — inviting obvious comparisons to Washington's inept response to the initial emergency in New Orleans when the Katrina catastrophe occurred.

The major mess in the world's most populous nation reminds us anew, it seems to me, of the way in which almost all of us in the West (including me) have been somewhat snow-jobbed by all the good weather stories out of resurgent China. Yes, the Chinese economic miracle is no fair-weather happening: It is as real as the sun rising and the sun setting every day.

But as the people of greater Shanghai dig out from under the avalanche, what other bad-weather reports has Xinhua perhaps been under-reporting?

Let's start with some of the known issues. The country is probably, already, the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. Its military buildup remains too secretive for anyone to completely rule out the worst.

China's income gap between the rich and poor may now even top America's. Violent protests of one kind or another exceed a thousand every week: The people's anger is often over issues of corruption and inequity.

The country's national building boom probably reflects a severe irrational exuberance that may wind up rivaling America's subprime mortgage crisis. And in November, the bogeyman of all troubled economies surfaced: China posted an ominous 11-year-high inflation rate.

And, like Japan, China's political system has been struggling. The Chinese Communist Party has a one party-system perhaps like no other in complexity and lack of transparency. But it does appear to be ridden with internal divisions that make those of Japan's long-governing Liberal Democratic Party look tame and genteel by contrast.

None of the above is to detract from the country's phenomenal re-emergence from the near-dead in just the last 25 years. But as weather-vanes go, we take notice of the snowy ferocity dumping on China for contrast with the milk minuet mooting over Tokyo. And so I ran my chilly (if not silly) weather vane scenario by my friend in less-snowy Tokyo:

Should we read anything profound in the tea leaves of the white avalanche that was falling on China?

He recommended we take the long view and respect the recovery capacities and resilience of China as well as Japan. He reminded me that he is something of a major fan of Shanghai itself, about which he joked: "In Shanghai, always remember, the ladies have ways to make everything melt!"

He was not being a sexist, but rather a historicist. Let me simply leave it at that.

UCLA professor Tom Plate is a veteran journalist and author of "Confessions of an American Media Man." Copyright 2008 Tom Plate


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