- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is FP's Asia editor. A Mandarin speaker, he lived in China for seven years before moving to Washington, D.C. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC, the BBC, NPR, Al Jazeera, and PRI, among others.
There’s debate about the size of the earthquake that struck a rural region of China’s southwestern Sichuan province on Saturday, killing at least 188 people and injuring more than 11,000 (Chinese seismology officials measured the quake at 7.0 while the U.S. Geological Survey pegged it at 6.6 — a huge gap). But it is nevertheless a much smaller earthquake than the magnitude 7.9 one that hit nearby Wenchuan County in May 2008 and killed more than 87,000 people.
That earlier earthquake dominated Chinese conversations and the news cycle in the months leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and "changed the way many Chinese people talked about government accountability, charity, and citizenship," the New Yorker‘s Evan Osnos writes. The biggest controversy surrounding that earthquake was the disproportionately large number of children buried to death after flimsy government-constructed schools — from which local official officials had siphoned off money — collapsed.
It appears that no schools collapsed in Saturday’s quake, but it’s too early to know for sure. (It’s also not clear whether schools in Lushan County, where the quake hit, withstood the disaster because they were better built or because the quake was much weaker than in 2008.)
The Wenchuan earthquake also helped propel dissident artist Ai Weiwei, who created a project to find the names of the dead schoolchildren, into the public eye. On Monday, Ai tweeted a link to a December 2012 YouTube video featuring the names of 4,851 children who died from the 2008 earthquake in white letters scrolling down a black screen. He managed to find roughly 80 percent of all the children who perished; the video is nearly an hour and a half long.
Unlike the previous earthquake, this one took place in the age of Weibo — the micro-blogging platforms similar to Twitter. Sina Weibo, the most influential, launched in August 2009 and now has 500 million users. An article published Monday in People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party spoke of the "maturity" with which Chinese netizens are approaching this earthquake as opposed to in 2008, which helps "stop the spread of rumors."[i.e., politically inconvenient information, sometimes false, sometimes true.]
Generally speaking, Chinese officials have a better sense now than they did five years ago that corrupt and embarrassing actions on their part could go viral on Weibo, which in turn could end their careers or lead to their imprisonment. Last year, for example, one official became the object of ridicule for flashing a fancy watch at the scene of a deadly bus crash.
Ai, who has more than 212,000 followers on Twitter and has sent almost 90,000 tweets, has been relatively silent on this earthquake, focusing more on dissidents like Tan Zuoren, who investigated the deaths of schoolchildren after the 2008 earthquake. Tan was sentenced to five years in prison in February 2010 for "inciting subversion of state power" by criticizing the government’s handling of the 1989 student protests and its bloody aftermath, but his supporters believe it was his work on the Sichuan earthquake that led to his arrest.
So far, officials have not taken much heat for their response to the most recent earthquake. A sign that the government has learned a thing or two since 2008? Check out this official in the white-button down looking properly somber, with hands clasped in front of him, during a meeting with Premier Li Keqiang in Lushan this week. There’s no watch on his wrist, and one can’t help but notice a very obvious watch-shaped tan line.
(h/t to Bill Bishop for the People’s Daily commentary and watch photo)