Little Red Podcast

Shaken But Not Stirred4 min read

The Chinese State and the Sichuan Earthquake – Louisa Lim


A single word defined state media coverage of the tenth anniversary of the massive Wenchuan quake that left 88,000 people dead or missing: Thanksgiving. With a complete lack of irony, the state news agency declared the anniversary to be Thanksgiving Day, with exhortations to “let the gushing springs of love flow without end,” even as the parents of children killed in the collapsed ruins of their shoddily constructed schools were forbidden from raising tombstones to remember their loved ones.

The tenth anniversary was the climax of a “thanksgiving education campaign” in schools and workplaces in the quake-hit region, designed to educate survivors in the proper display of gratitude for the gift of reconstruction. With five million people left homeless – more than the entire municipal population of Los Angeles – the local authorities used the widespread devastation as the driver of what Colorado College’s Christian Sorace characterizes as a Great Leap Forward style campaign, mobilizing the entire state apparatus to telescope decades of development into a short window of reconstruction.

Sorace came to this conclusion after interviewing local officials for his book Shaken Authority: China’s Communist Party and the 2008 Earthquake: “Some of the local officials in Dujiangyan [in Sichuan province] that I spoke with actually said, ‘For us the earthquake was a blessing in disguise because the houses collapsed and did the hard work of demolition for us. Now we can simply move the peasantry into these new apartment buildings and into new urban lifestyles.’”

On paper, at least, the achievements are impressive, with local authorities reporting urbanization rates of up to 59% in these erstwhile rural regions. But Sorace found the project to engineer new urban citizens had failed to provide jobs or steady sources of income for many former peasants, leaving them dissatisfied with new urban lifestyles that would not allow them to raise animals or support themselves. Thus, one aim of the thanksgiving campaign is to ensure ideological rectitude – or at the very least silence – among the more vocal of the would-be complainers.

A further indication of the heightened political sensitivity surrounding the tenth anniversary of the Wenchuan quake is that – similar to June 4th anniversaries – the mourning was policed, with bereaved parents put under surveillance to ensure appropriate displays of emotion.

In the quake’s immediate aftermath, volunteers flooded into Sichuan from all over the country, driving vans stacked high with food and bottled water donated by concerned citizens.   Non-government organizations blossomed, leading to hopes of a golden age of civic engagement. But the reality, according to Hong Kong Baptist University’s Yi Kang, was that the initial volunteering boom was followed by a systematic tightening of control by the authorities: “All the time they suspected that non-state actors might threaten their power or make trouble for the local governments … the way the local government tried to embrace changes was by designing new mechanisms of assimilation and exclusion.”

“In 2008, we saw a lot of flexibility and situation-based strategies to dealing with civil society and ordinary citizens,” says Emory University’s Xu Bin, author of The Politics of Compassion: The Sichuan Earthquake and Civic Engagement in China. “Now ten years later we find this flexibility has been disappearing and the spontaneous actions and cooperation with NGOs, and even citizens, are pretty much gone.” That early tractability has now disappeared as the authoritarian role of government has strengthened, while many non-governmental organizations feel increasingly frustrated and exploited by increasing intervention from local authorities.

The party’s post-quake media strategy also demonstrates the same dynamics of fang and shou: loosening then tightening. In the days after the quake, many Chinese journalists took the initiative to report from the disaster region, sometimes even ignoring their own organization’s directives. But this bottom-up mood of openness did not last long, with investigative reporting about the collapsed schools soon shut down.

Despite that, Georgia State University’s Maria Repnikova describes the quake as a watershed moment in institutionalizing crisis communication at a local government level, albeit with some limitations: “This kind of transparency in many ways is what I call manufactured transparency – something that gets really heavily constrained and deliberately controlled by the party. But to some extent, according to crisis management experts, it’s still a step in the right direction of kind of Westernization of communication practices by the government.”

While gratitude campaigns have been in vogue in the West for their mental health benefits, the rebranding of the quake’s tenth anniversary as a celebration –  culminating in a surreal commemorative marathon through the countryside around the destroyed city of Yingxiu – is pure old-school Communist propaganda. Such positive framing reinforces ideological conformity and state control through muzzling the most vocal public criticism.

But cynical Chinese netizens are wise to these tactics. Colorado College’s Christian Sorace says that the gratitude of local residents can’t be so easily bought: “One of the interviews that stood out for me the most was a very candid codger who said to me, ‘If I give you a gift and it’s not what you wanted … is it still a gift?” 


This essay is a companion piece to this week’s episode of the Little Red Podcast, hosted by Graeme Smith amd Louisa Lim.
Header image: Ruins of Beichaun city after the Sichuan earthquake. Photo by Chris on Flickr