On Saturday morning at 8:02 am Beijing time a 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit Lushan County, Ya’an City Sichuan Province in southwestern China near the Tibet Plateau. On Monday, China’s state media said that at least 188 people had been confirmed dead and over 1.5 million people had been affected. Some foreign media outlets have reported that the earthquake killed around 200, injured nearly 12,000 others, and left 100,000 people homeless.
The earthquake immediately conjured up memories of the 8.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Sichuan Province in 2008, leaving 80,000 people dead or presumed dead but never recovered. That earthquake and the government’s response to it was highly controversial inside China and President Xi Jinping seemed determined from the onset to avoid the mistakes many felt his predecessor made in 2008, in responding to Saturday’s tragedy.
Almost immediately after the earthquake it was reported in state media that Xi had issued “all out measures [be taken] to rescue victims and minimize casualties.” Xi also reportedly ordered that, “rescue work should be done in a scientific way in order to reduce casualties to a minimum.”
The State Council quickly declared first-grade emergency response, which included promptly dispatching army and police troops to the area to help rescue people and assist in the relief efforts. By Monday about 19,000 troops had reached Sichuan Province and were participating in the response.
Xi Jinping also personally asked Primer Li Keqiang to travel to the quake ridden city to monitor and coordinate the relief efforts. He had arrived by Saturday afternoon and was telling people that, “The current most urgent issue is grasping the first 24 hours after the quake’s occurrence, the golden time for saving lives, to take scientific rescue measures and save peoples’ lives.”
The top hospital in the provincial capital of Chengdu— about 150 km away from the epicenter of the earthquake— immediately ordered that 200 beds be made available for victims of the quake and preparations be made to open up 300 additional ones in the coming days. Hospitals across Chengdu helped treat some of the most severely injured victims of the earthquake.
By Sunday the Chinese government announced that a 1 billion yuan (about US$160 million) fund had been created for“rescue and relief work, the relocation of people affected by the quake, medical treatment, subsidies for the victims’ families, as well as for repairing damaged public facilities.”
One paradoxical quality of tragedies, both man-made and natural, is their tendency to bring out the absolute best in people everywhere. And so it was in Ya’an this weekend. The Guardian carried one story that was revealing in this regard; that of the eldest daughter of Wang Qiong, one of those tragically killed in the earthquake.
According to the London-based publication, just minutes after Wang’s two daughters and widower had fished burying Wang, her eldest daughter, a nurse, turned to her mother’s grave and said, “Mum, I need to help other people now,” before walking off to attend to other victims.
Often times a tragedy will bring out the best in governments as well. From what information is currently available, this seems to be the case in Saturday’s earthquake. Not only has the Chinese government brought a huge amount of resources to bear in a short period of time, a quality it has long been admired for, but its leaders and state media were regularly updating Chinese on events on the ground, something which many Chinese, especially social media users, have been critical of the government for not doing in the past.
Thus if crises are the best test of leadership, Xi and Li appear to have passed.