Remembering the Wenchuan Earthquake, Ten Years Later

I lived on the fifth floor of the student residence at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, so I didn’t feel anything amiss on the afternoon of May 12, 2008. Professors with apartments in the faculty high-rise next door said they felt the building sway, a subtle signal that 1,000 miles away the earth had cracked open. What came through as a split-second tremble in Nanjing was the ripple effect of a magnitude-7.9 earthquake that struck Wenchuan County, Sichuan Province at 2:28pm that day, causing entire towns to collapse and killing more than 85,000 people.

While it was clear from the start that the Wenchuan Earthquake was a major disaster, its full impact wasn’t immediately apparent. At first, it seemed like the latest in a string of unsettling events that had plagued Chinese Communist Party leaders since the beginning of 2008. That year was supposed to be a triumphant one for the PRC, scheduled to host the Summer Olympics in Beijing. Instead, it had begun with a series of crippling snowstorms at the height of Spring Festival travel, followed not long after by riots in Tibet and protests along the Olympic torch route abroad. The Wenchuan Earthquake appeared to be a devastating natural disaster that struck just as the country was supposed to be moving into full-on Olympic fever—the torch relay had finally reached the Chinese mainland only five days earlier.

As volunteers and People’s Liberation Army units streamed to the mountains of Sichuan to aid survivors of the earthquake, the catastrophe morphed from a natural disaster into a political one. The deepest devastation involved the collapse of school buildings; more than 5,000 children perished when their classrooms crumbled around them. Parents and rescue workers soon realized that many schools showed signs of sub-standard construction—the result of corruption on the part of building contractors and local officials, who had skimmed from the funds allocated for erecting schools and put up cheaper “tofu-dregs schoolhouses” instead (so named because tofu dregs are insubstantial, spongy, and soft). When the parents began to stage protests and blame CCP officials for the deaths of their children, government authorities moved in to silence them.

Earthquake memorial site in Beichuan

Since 2008, the Communist Party has sought to maintain strict control of the narrative surrounding the Wenchuan Earthquake. Celebratory discussions of earthquake rescue and recovery efforts, as well as the rapid post-earthquake reconstruction of Wenchuan County under Party direction, are fine. But questioning how corruption and malfeasance on the part of CCP officials contributed to the death toll is a no-go zone. Activists such as Ai Weiwei and Tan Zuoren have run afoul of the Party by drawing attention to its role in the earthquake’s devastation.

On a trip to Sichuan in 2015 my group made a stop in the town of Beichuan, which has been preserved in place as a living museum to the disaster. It’s a solemn but also unnerving memorial, and as I walked through the town’s streets with the other members of my group I was repeatedly visited by the feeling that we shouldn’t be there. It felt too raw, too personal—an invasion of private grief. Turning a ravaged town (a sign at the beginning of the tour route notes that 20,000 bodies still lie beneath the rubble in Beichuan, but it may be more) into a national tourism site as part of the region’s economic recovery plan struck me as a violation against all who experienced the terror of the earthquake and the families that lost their loved ones.

The politics surrounding both the Beichuan memorial town and adjacent earthquake museum mean that only one story—the one that emphasizes the leadership and sagacity of the Chinese Communist Party—can be narrated to visitors. The Wenchuan Earthquake isn’t like 1989’s June Fourth Massacre: the topic isn’t completely off-limits, and in fact the Party presents the quake as a moment of national unity under wise CCP guidance. Yet like the family members of 1989’s victims, the grief of those with relatives who perished in the earthquake has been politicized; there is an officially approved way to mourn, dictated by the Party above.

In imperial China, natural disasters like floods and earthquakes could be interpreted as signs that the ruling dynasty had lost the Mandate of Heaven and that a change was on the horizon. (In a remarkable coincidence, one of history’s worst earthquakes took place in Tangshan, Hebei Province, less than two months before Chairman Mao died in 1976.) In 2008, the Chinese Communist Party had no intention of allowing the Wenchuan Earthquake to threaten its grip on power, and in the decade since it has further clamped down and dictated what can be spoken aloud and what must remain silent. The Communist Party can’t control the movements of the seismic fault lines that lie beneath China’s surface, but it spends a great deal of time and effort working to prevent the emergence of political fault lines among the people living under its rule.

Museum diorama depicting earthquake rescue efforts

With the tenth anniversary of the Wenchuan Earthquake have come a number of news stories and commentaries about the tragedy’s after-effects. Here’s a short reading round-up of those, plus a few works of scholarship that place the quake in a broader context.

• In the first days after the earthquake, people across China collected donations and traveled to the quake zone to assist in rescue efforts. For a brief period of time the CCP allowed this outpouring of civic engagement. Pretty quickly, though, the Party moved in to clamp down and take control, dividing the civic groups between those with official permission to act and those without. Sociologist Bin Xu discusses this process in his 2017 book, The Politics of Compassion: The Sichuan Earthquake and Civic Engagement in China*; I interviewed Xu about his research for the AAS #AsiaNow blog last year.

• The effect the Wenchuan Earthquake had on Chinese civil society and politics is also the topic of this thoughtful commentary by Ian Johnson at the New York Review of Books and this article at The Economist.

• The CCP’s storyline about the earthquake is all about the leadership shown by the Party during rescue efforts and the subsequent reconstruction period. For an extended analysis of CCP discourse and the actions it took to reinforce this narrative, see Shaken Authority: China’s Communist Party and the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake*, by political scientist Christian Sorace, and this #AsiaNow interview I did with Sorace about his work.

• Bin Xu and Christian Sorace were among the speakers on a panel about the Wenchuan Earthquake anniversary at the AAS conference in March, and that panel has now been turned into an episode of the Little Red Podcast, hosted by Louisa Lim. Xu, Sorace, and political scientists Maria Repnikova and Kang Yi discuss their research into the earthquake’s long-term effects on Chinese politics and society.

• Sorace also guest-edited a new issue of the Made in China digital magazine, which includes a special section on the decade since the earthquake. Bin Xu and Kang Yi are among the section’s contributors.

• In the run-up to the earthquake’s anniversary, some Chinese have taken issue with the local government’s choice to designate May 12 as “Thanksgiving Day” (thanking the Party, of course) rather than “Memorial Day,” Tiffany May reports on this at the New York Times.

• At SupChina, Eileen Guo discusses “The Politics of (Not) Remembering Wenchuan’s Earthquake Victims,” focusing on the continued work of activists such as Tan Zuoren. Also see this Associated Press report on Huang Qi, an earthquake activist currently under detention, and how the parents of children who died in the earthquake are struggling to mark the anniversary without running afoul of the authorities.

• My understanding of local feelings about the Beichuan memorial site was greatly enhanced by a China Information article by Katiana Le Mentec and Qiaoyun Zhang, “Heritagization of disaster ruins and ethnic culture in China: Recovery plans after the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake.” Tip of the hat to Ian Johnson for linking to the article in his NYRB piece, which is how I came to read it.

• AFP reporter Ben Dooley traveled to Beichuan recently to talk with those who have been tasked with preserving the ruined town, including one local official who lost his young son in the earthquake. Eileen Guo visited Yingxiu, another preserved town, and explains why the quake ruins have not become the tourism draw that local officials expected.

• Dooley also reports on a small village where reconstruction efforts were hampered by corruption on the part of local officials, as well as how the earthquake affected communities in the Qiang minority group, which lost nearly 10 percent of its population in the disaster.

• Sixth Tone, an online publication that is Chinese state media but able to push the envelope a bit (though you have to read it with a careful eye), has a special section of earthquake anniversary stories plus a short podcast episode up at its site.

The Atlantic has put together a photo collection showing the earthquake zone ten years later.

• To conclude with a bit of black humor, here’s the fourth report from Ben Dooley in his mini-series on the Wenchuan Earthquake anniversary. Dooley intended to write “a feel-good story about a pig that became a national icon after surviving a devastating earthquake 10 years ago in China’s southwestern province of Sichuan.” (For the backstory on Zhu Jianqiang, or “Strong-Willed Pig,” see this New York Times report from 2008.) But when Dooley attempted to interview tourists visiting the pig (to be clear, he wasn’t trying to interview the pig itself), plainclothes public security bureau officers stepped in and escorted him away from the pigpen. As Dooley writes, “In a country where it is illegal to disparage national heroes, even a famous pig can become a sensitive subject.”

* Amazon Affiliate link. Make your purchase through this link and I receive a small commission. Thank you for your support of my work! ~Maura

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