Leading article: Mirrors that reflect the reality of regimes

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The Independent Online

Contrast the response of two leaders to massive national emergencies within their countries. The day after the Chinese earthquake, in which some 12,000 people at least have perished, the country's prime minister, Wen Jiabao, rushed to the area to which he had already dispatched troops on disaster relief duty. In Burma, 10 full days after the cyclone in which 100,000 are dead or missing – and the UN estimates a staggering 1.5 million people are at risk – the leader of Burma's military government, General Than Shwe, is in hiding. Even the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has been unable to get through to him on the phone to express his "immense frustration" at what he described as Burma's "unacceptably slow" response in which fewer than a third of those at risk have received any assistance at all.

Both countries have, in theory at any rate, welcomed material aid from abroad but declined assistance from teams of international aid experts. Yet one has been showered with opprobrium and the other accorded a sovereign respect. The reason for the divergent response is obvious. Beijing has rushed troops and helicopters into the afflicted province of Sichuan. The Chinese emergency services have moved giant earth movers into the city and team of rescuers – clad in raincoats and carrying shovels – swiftly made their way into the devastated areas. In Burma, by contrast, in the Irrawaddy Delta, the area worst affected by the cyclone, people have been largely left without shelter or emergency food. With little access to clean drinking water, they face cholera, dysentery and other illnesses. Tiny amounts of help are being delivered by the most rudimentary of means, in dugout canoes. The UN says it has reached around 270,000 people, shipping in less than a tenth of the food needed, with rice stocks "close to exhaustion". Meanwhile much of the aid which has been allowed to trickle into the country, in minuscule amounts, has sat at the airport for days. In the past 24 hours there has been, the UN says, only slight improvement. Natural disaster threatens to turn into a human catastrophe.

The Burmese army, which seemed omnipresent when pro-democracy protests needed suppressing only a few months ago, has been notable by its absence. And yet Vice-Admiral Soe Thein, of the country's military leadership, while announcing that the regime was grateful for the aid shipment from the United States which arrived on Monday, has insisted again that there is no need for foreign aid workers or logistical experts. It is not hard, therefore, to concur for once with the verdict of President George Bush that this paranoid military dictatorship is either "isolated or callous".

What is most striking in the parallel between the tragedies in China and Burma, however, is that the things which are being said of the military tyranny in Rangoon are very similar to the verdicts that would have been pronounced three decades ago on Beijing at the end of the regime of Chairman Mao. A lot has changed since then, most notably the mushrooming economic development of China which has leapfrogged it from the status of a developing nation to the world's emerging super-power.

One of the most striking features of those decades has been the extent to which economic growth, and the development of internal markets, has brought China to attend better to the needs of all its citizens. Beijing has realised that serious political consequences follow from development that is not equitably distributed throughout the nation. Revolting villages, and even regions, result from any sense that large groups of people, particularly in rural areas, are being left behind. An increased sensitivity to the needs of all the population is clear. Economic growth brings democracy. China still needs more of the latter. But Burma needs more of both.

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