China may be a country accustomed to natural disasters, but the destruction caused by the 6.9 magnitude earthquake that shook Yushu County last Wednesday morning shocked the nation. The city of Jiegu was flattened, more than 2,000 were killed, and 100,000 made homeless.
This Wednesday was declared a national day of mourning, with public, entertainment and sporting events suspended. Even the opening of the new Wynn Encore, a boutique casino hotel in Macau, postponed its fireworks in solidarity with the victims of the quake.
The tragedy comes just ahead of the two-year anniversary of the massive Sichuan earthquake – and serves as a grim reminder of the country’s long history of seismic activity.
The Yushu quake has a further political significance in China – not least because it took place in the sensitive Tibetan part of Qinghai. President Hu Jintao cut short his attendance at the BRIC summit in Brazil to join the relief effort.
Traditional Chinese philosophy says that a virtuous emperor rules thanks to the ‘mandate of heaven’, and that natural disasters are a sign that this mandate has been withdrawn. It’s an idea not lost on China’s present leaders (although bonafide communists aren’t supposed to put much store in ancient superstitions). So Hu’s visit carries important symbolic value, and shows the public that his government is on top of the situation.
China has experienced some of the deadliest earthquakes in recorded history. One of the most recent – the 1976 Tangshan earthquake – killed at least 250,000, and its story is the subject of an upcoming film this summer (see WiC47).
Both the Yushu and Sichuan earthquakes took place on fault lines on the Tibetan plateau, where the vast majority of China’s major quakes occur. They were caused by the same tectonic movements that created the Himalayas, as well as joining up the Indian subcontinent with Asia fifty million years ago.
Part of what made the Yushu quake so deadly – despite being relatively weak – was the lack of an early warning system. Chinese media reported that some teachers did notice the foreshocks and evacuate dormitories. But no official warning was delivered.
Unsafe and substandard building materials deepened the danger for residents. The Sichuan quake in 2008 exposed particular problems with shoddily built schools that collapsed like ‘tofu dregs’. In response the State Council announced plans to inspect school buildings across the country. But that didn’t come soon enough for Yushu, where the Red Cross estimates that 70% of schools have collapsed.
“It’s obviously substandard construction,” Xu Zhenhua, leader of one of the rescue teams, told state television, “the three-storey dormitory [of Yushu Ethnic Comprehensive Vocational School] smashed to one storey in a short time – into pieces.”
Donations have started to come in from around the country – but a lack of transparency over how monies are used has left many sceptical. Small ‘grassroots’ NGOs still don’t have the right to raise money from the public; so most aid is channelled through the government, which provides little accounting for its use. Charity worker Xu Yongguang complained to the China Youth Daily that donations had become the “government’s second tax source”.
Meanwhile Chinese seismologists have predicted that more earthquakes are expected. Popular science fiction writer Han Song worries if Beijing could be next. “Beijing’s anti-earthquake measures are said to be of comparatively good quality,” he wrote on his blog, “but I don’t feel particularly comfortable with the build quality of today’s housing.” The capital’s last severe earthquake was in 1679 (an estimated 8 on the Richter scale), but Han says that the Beijing area has suffered 592 quakes since records began.
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