China's earthquake watcher

Independent analysis of government policy is rare and generally unwelcome in China; it's even rarer for such advice to be followed. But an exception that proves the rule is when the advice-giver has a direct line to decision-makers, and when there's serious state money to be saved. 

While in southwest China recently, I caught up with Yong Yang, a rabble-rousing independent geologist who has previously faced death threats from businessmen and local officials for raising concerns about the feasibility of lucrative proposed projects. 

One story he shared seems particularly poignant now, on the second anniversary of the May 12 Wenchuan earthquake.  

At the time the earthquake struck on May 12, 2008, Yong was in the field conducting research when he received a mobile text message (voice-networks were down) from his son, a college student in the provincial capital of Chengdu: a big earthquake has struck Sichuan province -- go find a TV.  

Yong hunkered down at a local restaurant to watch broadcast of the devastation. He had previously warned government officials about the vulnerability of certain buildings in the quake-vulnerable zone, but to no avail. 

Now he knew that dams along the region's Minjiang River were in danger of collapsing, and if they did, several large hydropower stations along the river could be flooded and destroyed. He was already making arrangements to leave the next morning to conduct an investigation of the damage, but before he did he sent a text message to an influential friend who happens to be a former Vice General Secretary of the National People's Congress: turn off the hydro-power stations; watch for damage. 

Usually following the advice of environmental watchdogs would cost the government money, putting the kabosh on various money-making projects. But in this case, Yong's advice concerned how to save 30 billion RMB in state investments. 

And this time, his advice was followed. The next day, the government gave orders to release water from dams along the Minjiang River.  

Yong meanwhile continued on to the quake-stricken region, where he and a small band of fellow scientists tried to make sense of what to do next. Predictably, not all of their subsequent suggestions about rebuilding and conservation have been followed. But when Yong has information useful to the government that Beijing doesn’t have, at least he has an in. His next project is a study of glacier melt on the Tibetan-Qinghai plateau.

AFP/AFP/Getty Images


Goodbye Gordon Brown

It's official. Gordon Brown has stepped down as prime minister of Great Britain.

Never having been elected and serving only three unpopular years as prime minister after many more in waiting, Brown won't be remembered as one of Britain's great leaders, and that's probably deserved. All the same, the outgoing prime minister has a good case to claim that he's been a victim of historical circumstance. On the main factor that propelled David Cameron into 10 Downing Street, the global financial crisis, even Brown's opponents admit he has "mostly made the right decisions."

But after 13 years under what should probably no longer be called "New Labour," British voters are hungry for a change. I was reminded today of a professor I had in college who once confidently told his class that under Tony Blair, Labour had likely created a "permanent majority" along the lines of Japan's Liberal Democratic Party. Even at the time, the statement seemed a bit overconfident. But today, when neither of those parties are in power, it's a reminder that the only constant in politics is change.

David Cameron faces a full in-tray right off the bat, particularly in the realm of foreign policy, which never really played much of a role in the election. Alistair Burnett's recent piece for FP is a great primer on the tough decisions that the new prime minister will face.   

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images