Dam Yangtze!

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Throughout the communist era, the people of China have been told to think of themselves not as individuals, but as part of a greater collective whole. That's why the transition to a market economy is so challenging -- it tears down the collectivist social structure and forces more than a billion people to start looking out for Number One, with no safety net to fall back on. Not surprisingly, that prospect has created deep anxiety and uncertainty among many Chinese. But the dramatic flooding of the mighty Yangtze River in recent weeks has allowed Beijing to reassure citizens that the spirit of pulling together for the common good remains very much alive.

This year's monsoon season has brought the worst flooding to China's industrial and agricultural heartland since the 1930s. More than 2,000 people have been killed, and as many as 240 million others have been forced to evacuate their homes or found themselves clawing their way to safety aboard makeshift rafts. The flood damage is estimated to run at $24 billion, and 5.5 million homes have been destroyed. More importantly, the floods may have dashed the country's hopes of reaching its economic growth targets -- a deeply troubling scenario in an economy which has to maintain an 8 percent growth rate in order to absorb the millions rendered unemployed by the closure of inefficient state enterprises.

Prophets of doom warn that the economic damage will bring social unrest, as failed harvests bring food shortages and flood damage increases joblessness. The flooding certainly adds a cruel twist to Beijing's Herculean challenge of shifting to a market economy, rapidly and profoundly altering the way millions of people live and work. But there may be some consolation: The epic struggle against the flooding has drawn tens of millions of ordinary people away from their jobs and day-to-day concerns. Soldiers, farmers and city dwellers have thrown themselves into the battle to shore up dikes, save lives and repair the damage, creating scenes reminiscent of the idealistic propaganda images of the 1950s. The floods remind the Chinese that even in an everyone-for-themselves market economy they share a common destiny; a destiny which they are able to shape by acting as a community.