California has a lot of fires; it’s a pretty dry state. The increasing frequency of devastating blazes such as those currently raging to the north of Los Angeles is leading to unsurpassed human and economic loss.
Climate change proponents are quick to identify California’s prolonged droughts and wildfires as direct evidence that they are right. They may have an argument. But the destruction and fatalities caused by natural disasters across the world today are just as much about population growth and poor planning as they are about environmental factors, not to mention things beyond human control.
Prior to this week’s Camp Fire, which has so far resulted in at least 42 fatalities, the deadliest inferno in California’s history started at Griffith Park, Los Angeles in October 1933.
A particularly barren summer had led to an excess of dry brush in the park, which gangs of workers from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation were hired to clear. On the 3rd October a small fire broke out in the park and quickly spread, with the inexperienced workers press-ganged into acting as emergency firemen.
Poorly planned backfires and inadequate firebreaks effectively trapped dozens of men in a swirling torrent of flame that was worsened by strong winds. Despite being brought under control relatively quickly by the emergency services, the Griffith Park inferno had claimed at least 29 lives.
Strong winds are currently hampering rescue efforts in California. No matter what the firefighting technology, the federal aid granted and the pre-emptive mitigation measures, a stiff breeze will exacerbate catastrophe.
The bodies were laid in a row on a concrete floor under a huge canvas shroud. Most were so badly burned that they could not be identified, except by their belongings, which were kept in an old apple crate.
As in 1933, macabre tales are being told today, with people found burnt to cinders in their cars or trapped in the rubble of their incinerated homes. When nature ‘wins’ the consequences are never pretty.
It is unfortunate that the California fires are being used for political point-scoring and ‘I told you so’ jibes when all that should have been considered from the outset was a unified and comprehensive response to an inordinately difficult situation. Repercussions and recrimination can wait.
These things happen – as pointedly obvious as it seems to say – and the exact circumstances of such a disaster will never be the same and can never be predicted. A dose of realism is required; we are not all-conquering and we will never know the future.
“The government didn’t give up on me. It has actively saved and assisted me, giving me free food, accommodation and education.”
“In China they call it a political camp but really it was a prison in the mountains…In the end, all the officials had one key point. The greatness of the Chinese Communist Party, the backwardness of Uighur culture and the advanced nature of Chinese culture.”
For the CCP it’s simple; the ‘re-education’ centres are turning Uighur men and women away from a path of Islamic extremist separatism towards one of Communist Chinese integration. At the same time, they are provided with food and comfort, withdrawing the privations that lead these people to listen to dangerous propaganda in the first place.
For many Uighurs, on the other hand, the camps are a systematised attempt to destroy their culture and force their loyalty to the CCP and the dominant Han.
The designation’re-education centre’ is only a very short leap from the ‘re-education through labour’ policy that persisted throughout the Mao era.
Almost everyone, from petty criminals, to drug addicts, to prostitutes, to political dissidents, wound up in forced labour camps across China’s rural provinces from the 1950s onwards. Here they underwent an intense programme of communist indoctrination, interspersed with back-breaking work on farms and in factories. These ‘undesirables’ were rarely given a trial, an accusation made by some former Uighur internees held in the Xinjiang camps.
People were forced into ‘schools’ where Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ would become the only other constant in a life of misery:
The schools were not concentration camps or gulags, but they were isolated places of detention where the inmates had restricted freedom and had to do hard labour under strict supervision. Because every cultivable area in China is densely populated, only in arid or mountainous areas was there space to contain the exiles from the cities. The inmates were supposed to produce food and be self-supporting. Although they were still paid salaries, there was little for them to buy. Life was very harsh. (Chang, 2004, pp. 479-80)
This description – from the renowned author Jung Chang describing the fate of her parents in Mao’s China – is strikingly similar to the reports coming out of Xinjiang.
In short, it appears that Xi Jinping has relaunched a banner Maoist policy in a very targeted manner. It adds further credence to the idea that Xi wishes to emulate the unquestioned allegiance that the Chairman once commanded from his population, often through brute force and murderous repression.
Yet the one-sided media coverage that persists in China, and the CCP’s ability to shield its worst excesses from the outside world, portrays a region under constant siege. ‘Counter-terrorism’ – a favoured buzzword in the West – is readily used to justify ethnic crackdowns. The ‘re-education’ centres are just one element of this.
The international community has given a typically muted response. Harsh words and threats of sanctions are nothing new for the CCP. If that is what the party has to endure to enable a free pass on another flagrant violation of human rights, then so be it.
Unfortunately, China has proved itself rather good at suppressing dissent and undermining minority groups. Forced labour, internment without trial and extra-judicial kidnappings are standard practice, honed over the years. Those who wish to avoid such punishment stifle their grumbles in order to live a quiet life. As long as the Communist state continues to offer them the illusion of development, this cycle will continue.
Of course, things can change and the Xinjiang camps may only further radicalise those young men and women most likely to carry out domestic acts of terror.
But the power of population is on the side of the government. The clever ploy of moving millions of Han Chinese into Xinjiang means that the Uighur don’t even form a significant majority in their own land. Unless they can harness the support of the displaced Han – and this is unlikely given ethnic and cultural differences – then their sorry plight looks set to persist.
Chang, J. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (2004)