Asian Relief: The Sharon Stone Effect

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Michael Urban / AFP / Getty

A worker uses a forklift to load a transport aircraft with relief material from the German Red Cross for Burma at Berlin's Schoenfeld airport.

The two natural disasters struck just days apart, yet their aftermaths were strikingly different. When cyclone Nargis swept through Burma on May 2-3, leaving roughly 134,000 people dead or missing, the world reacted with deep sympathy and immediate promises of aid. International generosity, so far reaching nearly $230 million in relief aid, stood in sharp contrast to the callousness of the ruling junta, which unilaterally slowed the flow of aid to a trickle and essentially ignored the plight of millions of suffering Burmese.

Then on May 12, an earthquake in the central Chinese province of Sichuan razed hundreds of villages, killing at least 65,000 people. While battalions of Chinese People's Liberation Army soldiers clawed through rubble to rescue people buried alive and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao rushed to the disaster scene to comfort victims, the Western reaction was far more muted.

Yes, nearly $160 million in cash was pledged by foreign nations, and the quake helped shift media attention from Beijing's harsh crackdown on Tibetan riots earlier this year. But, all in all, the Chinese earthquake didn't elicit the same groundswell of popular international compassion as the Burmese cyclone — much less the activist urgency of the genocide in Darfur. Indeed, significant amounts of aid to China seemed to be from multinational corporations with an eye to economic relations with the People's Republic rather than from an outpouring of populist sympathy. In an extreme indication of prevailing Western attitudes, Hollywood actress Sharon Stone suggested that the Sichuan temblor could have been the result of bad "karma" for China's recent campaign in Tibet.

Certainly, there are few victims as beleaguered as the Burmese. Oppressed by a military junta for more than four decades, the people of Burma seemed to expect little from their government when Cyclone Nargis tore through the Irrawaddy Delta. The government duly met those low expectations, for weeks keeping nearly all foreign aid workers out of the devastated delta and even confiscating private donations from Burmese horrified by their rulers' inaction. Nearly a month after the storm, the United Nations estimated that 1 million victims still had not received any help at all. Then, just two days after U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon left Burma following a donors' conference in the commercial capital, Rangoon, the generals yet again proved their disregard for international sentiment by extending by another year the house arrest of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The figurehead of Burma's strangled political opposition, she has been under detention for much of the past two decades. With the exception of the North Koreans, few nationalities feel as downtrodden as the Burmese do.

Survivors of China's earthquake have faced a different kind of international scrutiny. While there's no questioning the overwhelming tragedy faced by the people of Sichuan, the narrative of sympathy is more complicated. In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, many foreigners were alarmed by what has been perceived as a burgeoning Chinese nationalism, which manifested itself most fervently after the Olympic torch relay was disrupted by foreign activists calling attention to Chinese human-rights abuses. The same national pride was what prompted thousands of ordinary Chinese citizens—not normally known for their sense of volunteerism—to rush to the aid of the Sichuan earthquake victims, loading up their own cars with food and water to distribute to the needy.

But the flip side to this Chinese patriotism—jingoistic rants on the Internet against any foreigner daring to question, say, Tibet's status as an inalienable part of China—has raised concerns in the West. Add to that the slew of bad press linked to Chinese workshops, which have churned out cheap but potentially dangerous products. Sichuan is one of the leading sources of the migrant labor that is powering China's factories. Perhaps it's harder to feel concern for the very workers who may have been toiling at factories producing toxic baby toys or dog food.

But people in need are people in need. True, it may be easier to cheer for an underdog like Burma than a behemoth like China. But when U.S. President George W. Bush condemned Suu Kyi's continuing detention, he also stressed that the junta's political intransigence would not affect American aid to the victims of Cyclone Nargis. The same calculus should be used for Sichuan. Yes, China is richer than Burma, and it may not need as much international aid as a country widely regarded as an economic basket case. But Beijing has urgently appealed for more tents and supplies from foreign donors. And the lessons of past natural disasters are instructive: After the 2004 tsunami, the international community poured money into the Indonesian province of Aceh, where civil strife had been simmering for years. The reconstruction effort, in part, helped galvanize a peace that holds to this day.

China as a potential superpower is not going to disappear anytime soon. Already, China's state-controlled press, which just weeks ago was castigating the outside world for harping on human-rights abuses instead of cheering the upcoming Olympics, has acknowledged with gratitude the aid provided by foreign countries. A few more donations could generate a lot more goodwill. That, with apologies to Sharon Stone, is the true meaning of karma.