The Great Sichuan Earthquake of 2008

by Andrew D. Brown
updated December 11, 2009

On May 12, 2008, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck the Sichuan Province of China. The massive quake contributed to nearly 70,000 fatalities, 374,000 injuries, and left 18,000 presumably missing[1]. Fifteen million people in and around Sichuan province were affected and 4.8 million people were left homeless[2]. The Great Sichuan Earthquake was recorded as the deadliest quake since 1776 when the Tangshan Earthquake took over 240,000 lives[3]. 2008's earthquake was the strongest since 1950 when the Chayu Earthquake registered at 8.5 magnitude[4]. Within the next decade, the Chinese government plans to spend 146.5 billion USD to rebuild the affected areas[5]. The objective of this assessment is to provide statistics and analyze the social and political aspects of this disaster. First, information on the geography and population situation of Sichuan will be provided. This will be followed by information on the earthquake that shook China on May 12, 2008, the damage it caused, government response, relief effort issues, and an overview of domestic and foreign agencies that contributed to the relief effort. A focus will be emphasized on the natural phenomenon of "quake lakes," inadequate "tofu-dregs" schoolhouses, and the controversy surrounding the 2008 Olympics that were scheduled later that year. This assessment will also look at the social context in the scope of the earthquake and a "lessons learned" assessment will be provided.

Geography and Population of Sichuan

Sichuan is one of China's larger provinces covering an area of nearly 485,000 square miles. The province is located in the southwestern part of the country and is situated in a subtropical zone which consists of mountain ranges, valleys, forests, basins, and rivers[6]. Sichuan Province is also home to the Wolong National Nature Reserve which houses dozens of endangered giant pandas[7]. The population situation in Sichuan is of dire importance. According to a census taken in 2000, 83.29 million people resided in Sichuan equating to 172 persons per square kilometer. The gender ratio within the province equates to two females for every three males[8]. This can be correlated with China's one-child policy established in 1979. This policy has been the sole factor in the gender imbalance within the country because couples often preferred to have boys rather than girls[9]. Twenty-three percent of Sichuan's population is between the ages of 0-14 years of age, seventy percent between the ages of 15-64, and seven percent are sixty-five and older. Recent statistics show that forty-three percent of the population, either children, elderly, or disabled, relies on another family member regularly[10].

Sichuan: May 12, 2008

On May 12, 2008, at approximately 2:28 in the afternoon (China Standard Time), a 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck Sichuan Province. The epicenter of the quake was located along the Longmenshan Fault in Wenchuan County, eighty kilometers west northwest of the provincial capital of Chengdu[11]. The main tremor of the earthquake lasted for nearly two minutes, causing great damage to infrastructure and produced a massive amount of fatalities[12]. The main tremor of the quake was felt hundreds of miles away within China and in other countries including Russia, Mongolia, India, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Vietnam[13].

The damage caused by the earthquake was nothing short of catastrophic. Within three days of the initial tremor, dozens of aftershocks, ranging from 4.0 to 6.1 magnitude, shook the counties of Wenchuan and Beichuan of the province[14]. The main tremor and the multiple aftershocks that followed it contributed to the collapse of hundreds of buildings and damaged all major highways in the affected area (hindering response efforts). Prolonged periods of rain following the earthquake caused flooding in rivers which affected thousands of homes and triggered landslides[15]. A massive landslide destroyed a part of the Wolong National Nature Reserve which housed sixty-four pandas. Mao Mao, a mother of five newborn cubs, was crushed by her concrete enclosure due to the force of the landslide. Sadly but luckily, only one out of the sixty-four pandas were killed in the landslide[16].

Government Response

Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, has praised the government of China for its rapid response[17]. Immediately receiving word and feeling that an earthquake had struck China, President Hu Jintao announced that there would be a quick response. Nearly two hours after the first tremor, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao had already landed in the stricken province to oversee relief efforts[18]. This type of proactive involvement is often unprecedented in most countries around the world. Immediately following the earthquake, the Chinese government ordered the immediate closures of airports, railroad services and other transportation serviced and suspended market activity and any other government events that were scheduled for May 12[19]. The Ministry of Health immediately sent squadrons of medical teams to Sichuan and other affected areas. 50,000 military troops were dispatched to take part in the relief effort[20]. In terms of responding to the earthquake, it is apparent that the Chinese government took a proactive stance in dealing with the situation.

Scholars often compare China’s response to the earthquake to Myanmar’s response to Tropical Cyclone Nargis which struck their coast ten days before on May 02. Most notably, the international community has praised China’s government for rapid disaster response and has condemned Myanmar’s military junta for their failure to provide for their citizens in which 80,000 people needlessly died from flooding, disease, and starvation. China had little or no warning that a 7.9 magnitude earthquake was going to strike the province of Sichuan and Myanmar was warned at least ten days prior to landfall that there was tropical development in the Bay of Bengal. All aspects of China’s government participated in aiding rescue workers at the epicenter in Sichuan but the military junta of Myanmar did nothing and even prevented aid from entering the country that the people desperately needed[21].

Relief Effort Issues

The aftermath of the earthquake hindered a much needed relief effort in numerous ways. Ravaged infrastructure, which buried thousands of people, made it difficult for responders to pull trapped individuals out of the rubble. Most major highways were destroyed by the quake, hindering response efforts by those who were travelling to the affected areas[22]. A prolonged period of rain allowed rivers to overflow their banks and triggered landslides, destroying everything in their paths. Falling boulders due to the tectonic shake posed hazards for those on their way to responding to the disaster stricken areas[23]. Dense fog over China created turbulence in the skies, making it difficult for air-shipped supplies to reach their destinations[24]. Numerous aftershocks following the main tremor caused many more buildings to collapse, damaged highways even more, and triggered more landslides[25].

Domestic and Foreign Aid

Domestically, the Ministry of Civil Affairs reported that some $1.5 billion USD has been donated by Chinese citizens to aid response and recovery efforts[26]. Many citizens have also lined up to donate blood for those who were badly injured by the earthquake[27]. The Red Cross Society of China collected nearly $26 million USD in donations and has also provided shelter, clothing, and other necessities for the affected public[28].

Foreign aid also began to flow in from other parts of the world. Rescue squads from South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Russia, and Taiwan were dispatched to the affected area immediately after receiving word of the earthquake[29]. The United States also aided relief efforts by shipping supplies to mainland China. Two U.S. C-17 aircrafts shipped food, blankets, generators, and other goods to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, for distribution[30].

Quake Lakes

The Great Sichuan Earthquake shed light on a phenomenon called “quake lakes.” In order to have a quake lake, a river and mountain or hill must be present. The earthquake and prolonged period of rain triggers a landslide from a mountain leading to a river. River flow is eventually completely blocked in which a massive pool of water begins to form. The fear is that if the earthed dam were to give way and collapse, the massive pool of water would be released, endangering the lives of thousands living downstream[31]. Within three days of the earthquake, thirty-four quake lakes had been formed. The government responded to the quake lakes by shooting anti-tank military arsenal into the earthed dams, creating small flood gates and allowing water to flow out little by little. Before this was done, villages downstream were evacuated as a precaution. The method the government used proved to be effective in draining out the quake lakes[32].

Tofu-Dregs Schoolhouses

In the aftermath of the earthquake, a focus was placed on inadequate infrastructure and more specifically, the “tofu-dregs” schoolhouses[33]. The schoolhouses crumbled in the earthquake as a piece of tofu would crumble if being improperly cooked. The reason why they were labeled tofu dregs was because of the poor construction. Up to 19,000 children may have lost their lives because of school collapses following the earthquake[34]. Many reasons could be to blame for the inadequate construction of the schoolhouses. Reasons surrounding quantity over quality have surfaced. The government has traditionally preferred more schools rather than soundly-built schools. This was because they wanted children to attend schools in vast numbers to keep up with the rest of the world in education. Budgetary issues also posed a problem. Questions regarding whether or not the local government has the funds to build schools became a resounding issue[35]. Did Sichuan cut corners in building schools in order to save money? The issue of the tofu-dregs schoolhouses was often an ignored issue by the government and state-run media. Due to the one-child policy, many families lost their only child which added a great amount of scorn towards the Chinese government[36].

The 2008 Olympics Controversy

The 2008 Olympics were scheduled to be held from August 8 to August 24 in Beijing, China. Before they were held, a debate arose from the recent earthquake as to whether or not the Olympics should even be held[37]. The consensus was that it should but as a low-key event because of the disaster. For months, the public grew weary of the major investment the government was putting into the Olympics rather than those who were affected by the earthquake. The Chinese government announced that the Olympics would be a tool for bonding and healing the public, but as the torch made its way through Sichuan, it was met with thousands of somber faces[38]. For the government, the show had to go on, and the Olympics were held with great prestige and pompous. To the world, just the opening ceremony of the Olympics itself portrayed a China who stood strong and prospered through such a catastrophic disaster[39]. For many people in the affected regions, it was just a mask to cover up fresh wounds.

Social Context

The Great Sichuan Earthquake posed several social implications and revealed the vulnerabilities of those who were affected. As mentioned earlier, the dependency rate of the province was forty-three percent. Forty-three percent of the population were either children, the elderly, or disabled who relied on another on a regular basis[40]. This was a major, if not the most important vulnerability of the region. The collapse of several tofu-dregs schoolhouses resulted in families losing their only child. One can only imagine the pain that has been suffered to lose an only child that was permitted by the government[41]. The living situation as of May 12, 2008 has been dismal. Many are still homeless living in shanties built from random materials. The people living in these conditions had to suffer through a harsh winter under harsh conditions[42]. Lastly, there is the Olympics controversy. Many question whether it was ethical to hold the Olympics with such pompous all the while ignoring those who were affected by the earthquake[43]. All of the aforementioned issues have caused great scorn towards the government. For someone who has lost everything, how is it possible to bounce back if the government is not willing to help in the long-term?

Lessons Learned

The Great Sichuan Earthquake gave some insight on lessons to be learned for the government and also for the rest of the world. Better construction of infrastructure is number one on the list. The government of China must replace the tofu-dregs buildings with soundly built ones and build roads that can withstand the forces of an earthquake. Moving populations away from river banks is another way to mitigate damages caused by flooding rivers and quake lakes. The Chinese government has been on a mission to show its legitimacy to the rest of the world. Its state-run media has done a better job than it has in the past which shows some promise. The Chinese government could teach other nations about rapid response. It is not very often when one sees the head of government arrive in a disaster stricken area within two hours to oversee relief efforts.


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