Sichuan Quake Reveals Gross Failings in the System

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 12

Beijing’s quick response to the Sichuan earthquake, including allowing foreign experts to take part in the rescue effort, has earned the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership relatively high marks for openness—and for its apparent readiness to live up to the “putting people first” credo. Yet more than three weeks after disaster struck on May 12, the attention of the public—as well as China observers worldwide—has turned to the CCP’s glaring failings in areas ranging from governance and transparency to the quality and rectitude of officials. Moreover, the Politburo under President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao has yet to demonstrate sufficient resolve to penalize cadres whose dereliction of duty, corruption and malfeasance have exacerbated the damage of this “natural disaster of the century.”

Survivors of the quake, which killed some 70,000 people and left at least 12 million homeless, have asked central and local authorities to account for large numbers of so-called “tofu buildings”—particularly jerry-built schools and dormitories—which collapsed like jigsaw-puzzle even as more sturdy government and office edifices have remained virtually undamaged. According to structural engineer Guo Xun, a National Seismological Bureau researcher who conducted surveys right after the quake, a high percentage of school buildings in the affected zone had flouted government construction criteria by using “minimal amounts” of steel and concrete. In late May a few thousand aggrieved parents—whose children perished under the debris of tofu structures—staged protests throughout the worst-hit counties of Beichuan and Wenchuan and the city of Dujiangyan. This was despite an early pledge by the Education Ministry that all Sichuan school buildings would be re-examined, and that cadres found cutting corners in construction materials would be “severely punished.” Angry parents in the Mianzhu District of Dujiangyan—where 127 students were killed upon the collapse of Fuxin School Primary School—became so agitated that local Party Secretary Jiang Guohua fell to his knees and begged them not to take the case to the provincial government (New York Times, May 27; Cable News, Hong Kong, May 28; Ming Pao, May 27).

To this day, however, neither the Sichuan government nor the Education Ministry has given the exact number of teachers and students killed in the quake. Estimates by Western experts ran between 10,000 and 15,000. Feng Congde, a researcher formerly affiliated with the New York-based Human Rights in China, cited figures showing some 35 percent of the fatalities were children and their teachers (, May 22). Premier Wen, who won praise for twice venturing into quake zones, has been criticized for failing to openly decry corrupt officials responsible for the sub-standard structures. This contrasted markedly with his predecessor, Zhu Rongji, who coined the phrase “tofu engineering” after inspecting shoddy dams and levies that gave way easily during massive flooding along the Yangtze River in the summer of 1998. The then premier told the Chinese media he would personally go after officials who had embezzled funds that were originally earmarked for making sturdy embankments. While a dozen-odd mid-ranking cadres were penalized, Zhu was unable to eradicate the problem (Hong Kong Economic Journal, May 28; Apple Daily, May 29). Fans of Wen, arguably the most popular cadre in China today, however, have defended the premier by saying given that tofu buildings are omnipresent in rural China, a public outburst of anger by the head of the State Council would unnecessarily vitiate the authority of the party at a critical juncture in history.

An equally disturbing problem exposed by the tremors is China’s woefully inadequate forewarning system against natural and man-made disasters. This is despite the fact that after the SARS epidemic in early 2003, the Hu-Wen team has prided itself on having set up a 24-hour, computerized, nationwide advance-warning network to detect early signs of troubles ranging from peasant riots and quasi-terrorist plots to typhoons and flooding. Within hours of the 5/12 catastrophe, forums and chat rooms on several popular websites were replete with stories about “predictions” of the tremors having been made since early this year by people ranging from Monday-morning quarterbacking fengshui masters to bona fide geological experts.

In response to allegations about incompetence, the National Seismological Bureau said a week after the tremors that it “had never received any information from individuals, organizations or government units” that could be construed as “predictions” or “portents” of the 5/12 quake (Xinhua News Agency, May 20; Ming Pao, May 25). Yet there is incontrovertible evidence that a steady stream of scientific papers had since 2002 highlighted the probability of massive tremors in Sichuan. A former NSB researcher, respected geophysicist Geng Qingguo, told the Hong Kong media that he had on April 30 sent his former employer a detailed report that warned an earthquake of magnitude 7 (on the Chinese scale) or above could hit Sichuan in the first half of May. Similarly, Chengdu University of Technology geologist Li Yong said he and experts from the United States and Britain had late last year published a paper predicting massive tremors for parts of Sichuan. Professor Li said if the authorities had paid more attention to publicly available information such as journal articles, rescue and relief work could have been much better planned and executed (Yazhou Zhoukan [Hong Kong], June 1; New York Times, May 31; South China Morning Post, May 25). Given other highly credible assessments of possible earthquakes in areas including the Three Gorges Dam, the Wen cabinet is under heavy pressure to demonstrate to Chinese residents as well as China-based foreign businessmen and professionals that the government has what it takes to preempt or at least adequately handle further natural disasters (, March 25).

As Sichuan is one of China’s most important bases for military—especially nuclear-related—research, the quake has laid bare the highly problematic “state within a state” status of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The city of Mianyang, which is close to the epicenter, is home to a labyrinthine network of nuclear weapons laboratories, including those under the world-renowned China Academy of Engineering Physics, the PLA’s top nuclear research facility. Vice-Minister of the newly established Ministry of Environmental Protection (MOEP) Wu Xiaoqing said in late May that 35 of the 50 “sources of radiation” buried by quake-induced debris had been secured or otherwise put out of harm’s way. The rest have been located but are unreachable under collapsed buildings (AP, May 24). While Wu did not disclose what the radioactive substances were, it is believed that they are not related to military institutions. As a civilian unit, the MOEP has no means of obtaining data from the generals. Given its special status in the Chinese polity, the PLA has been able to get away with not giving nervous residents of Sichuan and nearby provinces the real picture about the potential hazard of weapons and nuclear materials lodged under the rubble. All that the generals have revealed is that military manufacturers suffered a loss of 67 billion yuan in the course of the disaster (Hong Kong Economic Times, May 29; Hong Kong Economic Journal, May 29).

As for the rescue-and-relief operation itself, the PLA at least initially received high marks for rapidly deploying up to 140,000 personnel to the scene. This stood in sharp contrast to the generals’ cavalier attitude during the first phase of the SARS crisis of 2003 as well as the snowstorm early this year. And the official media was full of high praise for courageous, Lei Feng-like heroes among the tens of thousands of soldiers risking their lives in the quake zone (Beijing Review, May 22). Sichuan residents and even PLA officers on the ground, however, have complained about the fact that the military seems ill-equipped to handle relief efforts of this magnitude. Hardware such as helicopters and transport planes are relatively old, and the skills of paratroopers and other key personnel have been found wanting. Commander Liu Pu, who is responsible for Qingchuan County, told Hong Kong newspapers that he was unable to secure the service of helicopters, as a result of which his soldiers had to physically carry food and water to remote villages. Liu also groused that many relief goods had been air-dropped in the wrong places. At least in the most critical first week after 5/12—when seriously injured victims had the best chances of survival upon rescue—Chinese helicopters were unable to land in the hillier regions or in counties closest to the epicenter (South China Morning Post, May 23). Such lapses have led to questions about how the PLA, which has been enjoying annual budget boosts of more than 15 percent the past decade, is using its immense resources. This is particularly apropos in view of the fact that, while justifying the PLA’s disproportionately large share of the economic pie, President Hu has reiterated that a strong army is the best “guarantor” for economic progress as well as the welfare and safety of the people.

More significantly for China’s long-term future, the aura of relative liberalization—particularly regarding the media—that won the country much praise the first fortnight after 5/12 has pretty much petered out (AP, May 18). Papers and websites have received stern party orders to focus on “positive news” such as edicts from Politburo members and acts of bravery by relief workers. Web postings that call into doubt the integrity or performance of the party and government, including questions about tofu constructions, are routinely deleted as soon as they have appeared. Overseas human rights organizations have reported that a professor at Nanjing Normal University, Guo Quan, and two editors of the popular Niubo website, Du Qiao and Huang Bin, have been subject to investigation and harassment by state-security personnel in relation for politically incorrect stories about the quake (, May 23).

Since the rash of anti-Beijing protests by Tibetans in March, as well as horrendous outbursts of xenophobia by so-called “angry young people” against Western politicians who threatened to boycott the Olympics, the Hu-Wen leadership has again put their priority on upholding socio-political stability—and the party’s control over most aspects of political life. Most if not all of the problems exposed by the quake, including endemic corruption, cannot be rectified within a short time. And even as the anger of parents of the victims of tofu projects is escalating, the possibility that the CCP leadership may beef up iron-fisted tactics against critics of the regime is very real. After all, with the Olympics just weeks away—and with speculation mounting about the possibility of quasi-terrorist attacks by underground extremist Uyghur and Tibetan groups—the CCP needs to project firmness and authority. The Hu-Wen leadership’s recentralization of power in the wake of the Tibetan riots and the Sichuan quake has made it even less likely that the much-anticipated Olympics will herald a kind of “Beijing spring” in the Middle Kingdom.