China Earthquake

Yesterday afternoon a 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit the the Sichuan province of China, near the city of Chengdu with its population of about ten million. So far the death toll is at 12,000 and expected to rise much higher. Thousands more at still trapped in collapsed buildings and heavy rains are hindering rescue efforts. Over 18,000 were buried in rubble and 3,100 of those confirmed dead in one city alone. In another county a reported eighty percent of buildings have been destroyed. Sichuan province has a population of 43 million and Chengdu is located at its heart. You can follow news about the quake via Google News.

National Public Radio has been covering the earthquake extensively as two of their correspondents were in Chengdu when the earthquake hit. They have a blog going over at NPR.org. NPR is one of a few Western news organizations to have access to the disaster and provide eyewitness accounts. You can hear reports given by Melissa Block and Robert Siegal here. The report from a collapsed three-story middle school in Dujiangyan by Block is particularly tragic. She describes the dozens of bodies of children being brought out, devastated parents crowding around for identification, cranes pulling rubble away and the scant few survivors removed by ambulance. Over 900 students were trapped in the rubble.

The official state newspaper Xinhua is the main source being followed by the Chinese for news about the earthquake. This is the worst in China since a 1976 quake killed 240,000 people. The Chinese have a traditional belief known as the Mandate of Heaven, and the occurrence of a natural disaster is seen as a divine repeal of this mandate. Chairman Mao died two months after that 1976 earthquake and his death was seen as part of that divine circumstance.

Coupled with the recent protests in Tibet and the upcoming Beijing Olympics in August, this may be seen as a portent of political change. Chinese leaders have been addressing the public and ordering relief for the victims the same way Chinese president Hu Jintao personally promised relief for those affected by the massive snow storms last winter.

Also of note is the possible internal refugee crisis this may cause and if there will be parallels to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina here in the US. When mixed with the looming refugee crisis in Burma and the announcement that millions more Chinese would need to be relocated before the Three Gorges Dam opens just downriver from Chengdu this looks like an onerous time for southeast Asia.