- - Wednesday, May 18, 2011

USS Vinson to Hong Kong

While the People’s Liberation Army’s top general is touring the U.S. this week, one event rippling through China is the scheduled visit to Hong Kong beginning Saturday of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson.

The Chinese tend to have a love-hate view toward U.S. ship visits to ports, especially Hong Kong. On the one hand, the events normally coincide with diplomatic thaws in Washington-Beijing relations, and the U.S. Navy embraces port calls as signs of friendship. The Chinese in most cases grant permission for such visits. On the other hand, the Chinese frequently exploit American eagerness for ship visits to Hong Kong as a tool in expressing resentment against Washington for perceived offenses.

A case in point was China’s unceremonious blocking of the USS Kitty Hawk battle group’s approved Thanksgiving 2007 visit to Hong Kong in retaliation for then-President George W. Bush’s “misdeeds” of meeting with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader, and Washington’s announced sale of Patriot anti-missile systems to Taiwan. As a result, more than 8,000 American sailors were turned back midway to Hong Kong on the high sea. Forced to return to their base in Yokosuka, Japan, the sailors missed the chance to be with family members who had traveled to Hong Kong for the holiday.

A symbol of American naval might, the Vinson has added poignancy and prominence in Chinese public consciousness because the carrier was the American warship used to “bury” Osama bin Laden’s body into the sea earlier this month. As reported in this space earlier, polls showed most Chinese admired bin Laden in the immediate aftermath of his demise for his anti-American stance, and this particular ship visit is making many Chinese unhappy.

Significantly, one of China’s fiercest challengers for maritime sovereignty in the South China Sea, where China has clashed with several states over resources and islands, is the Philippines, and the Vinson is sailing to Hong Kong after a triumphant friendship visit to Manila.

Despite all these complex Chinese feelings, Beijing is expected to grant permission for the Vinson visit because the visit to the United States by PLA Chief of Staff Gen. Chen Bingde is giving Chinese more than they had bargained for.

Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Huang Xueping told reporters in Beijing several days ago with palpable excitement: “The U.S. military has not for many years opened up some sensitive places for [Chinese] military leaders to see. This time, [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen] has made special arrangements so that our delegation can see these places, which shows the great significance of Gen. Chen’s visit viewed by Adm. Mullen, and the positive attitude of the American side toward developing our military-to-military relations.”

To stress the symbolism of this visit, the spokesman gleefully announced that by mutual agreement, the Chinese military band that is accompanying Gen. Chen played a robust version of “Ode to the Motherland” at a joint concert Tuesday in Washington.

The jingoistic song contains this lyric: “We love peace, we love our homestead, but whoever encroaches on our territory, just call him ‘dead’!”

Price of mayoral office

As part of a new Chinese government’s effort to reduce coal mining accidents and the resulting social unrest and tensions, authorities in the central province of Henan, with vast mining entities, recently issued additional safety regulations designed for what state-run news accounts say are the most “draconian” regulations to date: Should 50 or more miners die in a single accident each year, or if two accidents occur in one year and kill 30 to 49 miners each, the mayor in charge of the area where the accidents occurred will be fired.

Communist officials across the nation hailed the new measure as decisive and a sign of the central government’s care for people’s lives.

China’s deadliest job is coal-mining. In the decade from 2000 to 2010, openly reported deaths of Chinese miners totaled a staggering 52,785, making China the world’s most dangerous country for coal miners.

By contrast, in the same period, the United States recorded a total of 365 fatalities from coal mining accidents, 145 times less than deaths in China. Although China is the world’s largest coal producer, accounting for about 45 percent of total global output, a Chinese miner is 20 times more likely to die in a mining accident than his U.S. miner counterpart. These statistics are almost certain to be lower than actual deaths as many Chinese coal mines, in collaboration with corrupt local officials, routinely falsify mining death statistics to avoid increasingly stiff fines and safety inspections.

Frequent mining accidents and their gruesome consequences pose a serious threat to the social stability under communist rule. Each accident tends to produce mass outrage nationwide against flagrant negligence and incompetent public safety officials who are often corrupted by state-run mining companies.

However, critics point out that the new approach will increase the incentive for local officials to falsely report the severity of any future mining accidents to avoid the indignity of being removed from office.

Many believe that the deaths of 49 or 50 miners are equally tragic and should not be the standard used to force a mayor to lose his job or not. Moreover, with a glaring lack of safety rules and effective enforcement, any method to reduce mining tragedies by focusing on human factors, rather than on the rule of law, is likely to be a futile and self-defeating exercise within the communist state.

Miles Yu’s column appears Thursdays. He can be reached at [email protected]

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