Two earthquakes in Gansu province in northwest China has left at least 75 dead and several thousand unaccounted for. It is not the first time in recent years that one of China’s remote western provinces has suffered a natural disaster, the worst of which claimed over 90,000 lives in Sichuan province in 2008.
In stark contrast to the rich and vibrant cities of the east, China’s western provinces remain predominantly rural and poor. They are notoriously inhospitable places to live, often being subjected to climatic extremes such as droughts and flooding.
Given that the infrastructure of region’s like Gansu, even in large cities, remains largely primitive, a large population means natural disasters have the potential to be particularly devastating.
Another potential reason for the disproportionate misfortunes of western China is because it is comparatively unimportant to the government. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would of course deny this, yet regions like Gansu, Sichuan, Inner Mongolia and Tibet are far less significant economically than the southern and eastern provinces. Even the important coal mining regions of the north, such as Shanxi, retain poor working conditions where mining disasters are frequent.
We must add to this economic insignificance geographical and cultural considerations. Gansu, for instance, is not a particularly convenient land for disaster relief, just as Sichuan proved in 2008. Many isolated communities exist in the province and this includes large towns and cities in addition to farmsteads. Whilst these urban areas may be small by Chinese standards, their populations often exceed several hundred thousand people.
Dingxi City, where today’s earthquake struck, is home to 2.6 million people. Surrounded by ravines and loess hills, it is not easily accessible for major relief operations. Additionally, Gansu is home to a large Hui (ethnic Chinese Muslims) minority and is culturally distinct from Beijing. Whilst large-scale relocation of the majority Han Chinese to the outer provinces has been conducted in recent years, in a bid to solidify CCP control, the Islamic heritage of the western provinces is another reason it is subject to less development, some would argue.
Mao Zedong was keenly aware of the geographical and ethnic intricacies of Gansu. During the Long March, when Mao was vying for leadership of the growing CCP with Zhang Guotao, Gansu came to his rescue. Zhang commanded a far larger contingent of the Red Army than Mao, making him favourite for the party leadership.
With devious deliberation, Mao persuaded Zhang to take his army through Gansu whilst he headed north towards Shaanxi, as the communists sought to avoid nationalist troops and link up with their Russian allies on the border with the Soviet Union. Mao knew Zhang’s troops would have to pass through disease-ridden marshland and mountainous terrain, whilst contending with rebellious Muslim warlords who had never been tamed by Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalists.
Zhang’s army was subsequently reduced to ruin and when he finally joined up with Mao in Yenan, many of the stragglers were simply put to death by Mao who now had the party leadership at his mercy. Zhang subsequently left the communists in 1938.
Whilst the Muslim influence on Gansu may have been reduced in the modern era, its distance, both geographically and politically, from Beijing make it vulnerable in disaster situations. The death toll from the earthquakes stands at 75, yet will surely rise. Both the president and the prime minister have sent their condolences but neither have visited the quake zone. The equality gap in China stretches beyond economics.