Ludian Earthquake Revives Political Conundrum: unequal development in China

Some 600 people have now been confirmed dead from the earthquake that hit Yunnan Province in China’s southwest on Sunday. It is the latest in a slew of deadly earthquakes that have affected the PRC in the past 6 years, including:

  • 2013 – Dingxi, Gansu – 95 dead
  • 2013 – Lushan, Sichuan – 193 dead
  • 2010 – Yushu, Qinghai – 2,698 dead
  • 2008 – Sichuan – At least 69,195 dead
Buildings have crumbled in the wake of the 6.1 magnitude quake
Buildings have crumbled in the wake of the 6.1 magnitude quake

There have been others that have claimed victims and, as with the latest earthquake in Ludian County, the vast majority have come from the rural poor. A lack of quality housing stock is just one indicator of the vast disparities between rural and industrial, rich and poor in China.

The twin facets of rural investment and the environment are of continuing concern for the CCP. Droughts, exacerbated by the requisitioning of water resources for industry and the pollution of agricultural land, have left people starving. Adequate resources have not been allocated at the County level to enable farmers to move away from the outdated and environmentally unsound agricultural methods (such as overuse of pesticides poisoning watercourses) that have traditionally been employed.

It is the poor, particularly in the rural areas away from the gaze of Beijing, that will provide China with it’s greatest political headaches in years to come. Increasing income inequality and a lack of sustainable investment in the outlying provinces will not be accepted, particularly if people’s lives are being put at risk.

Natural disasters, both over time (such as droughts) and instant (like earthquakes), need careful management by the political elite. Corrupt local officials must be sidelined to prevent the siphoning-off of aid money provided by central government. A need for politicians to present a ‘solidarity’ with the victims is also paramount.

One need only look at the aftermath of the July 1976 Tangshan earthquake when some 240,000 people died. The ‘Gang of Four’, a political clique seeking to replace the dying Mao Zedong, alienated themselves from the population by refusing to accept the horrors of the earthquake. Instead, they were more concerned with smearing political opponents in the press.

The Tangshan earthquake caused unimaginable devastation. Much of the housing stock was of similar quality to that still extant in many parts of the country
The Tangshan earthquake caused unimaginable devastation. Much of the housing stock was of similar quality to that still extant in many parts of the country

Jiang Qing, one of the Four and Mao’s wife commented:

There were merely several hundred thousand deaths. So what? Denouncing Deng Xiaoping concerns 800 million people.

The practices of the Cultural Revolution came crashing down in the face of political uncertainty and real human adversity. A hypnotic control was lifted and the Chinese population gave their support to Deng Xiaoping, Hua Guofeng and Mao’s other successors, who began the economic transition that flourishes until this day.

CCP leaders have managed the recent earthquakes in China’s history fairly well and Premier Li Kequiang has been quick on the scene in Ludian County. Both he and President Xi Jinping are aware of the environmental and developmental challenges facing China. Whilst some events are beyond their prevention, they know the political repercussions of mismanagement.

Li Kequiang consoles a quake victim during a well-publicised hospital visit
Li Kequiang consoles a quake victim during a well-publicised hospital visit

It is claimed that the Tangshan earthquake shook Mao from his seat of power. China’s current crop of leaders will be hoping to avoid a similar natural, or human-made, catastrophe befalling them.

 

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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