China quake will test Beijing’s transparency, crisis management

AFP/AFP/Getty Images It seems hard to imagine a scenario in which the massive earthquake that rocked China’s western Sichuan Province at 2:28pm local time today has not killed tens of thousands — possibly more. Beijing originally put the death toll at 61. Hours later, the figure was increased to “up to 8,500.” With rescuers, including thousands of Chinese ...

595087_080512_china_earthquake_810584312.jpg
595087_080512_china_earthquake_810584312.jpg

AFP/AFP/Getty Images

It seems hard to imagine a scenario in which the massive earthquake that rocked China's western Sichuan Province at 2:28pm local time today has not killed tens of thousands -- possibly more. Beijing originally put the death toll at 61. Hours later, the figure was increased to "up to 8,500." With rescuers, including thousands of Chinese soldiers, still unable to reach the epicenter of the quake, one can only assume this figure is tragically optimistic.

Officials at the U.S. Geological Survey have said that the magnitude 7.9 quake was relatively shallow. Shallow earthquakes do more damage near their epicenters than ones which occur deeper in the Earth. Just over 30 years ago, in 1976, a similarly shallow quake, measuring magnitude 7.5, hit the northern Chinese city of Tangshan. It killed more than 250,000 people.

AFP/AFP/Getty Images

It seems hard to imagine a scenario in which the massive earthquake that rocked China’s western Sichuan Province at 2:28pm local time today has not killed tens of thousands — possibly more. Beijing originally put the death toll at 61. Hours later, the figure was increased to “up to 8,500.” With rescuers, including thousands of Chinese soldiers, still unable to reach the epicenter of the quake, one can only assume this figure is tragically optimistic.

Officials at the U.S. Geological Survey have said that the magnitude 7.9 quake was relatively shallow. Shallow earthquakes do more damage near their epicenters than ones which occur deeper in the Earth. Just over 30 years ago, in 1976, a similarly shallow quake, measuring magnitude 7.5, hit the northern Chinese city of Tangshan. It killed more than 250,000 people.

It’s worth watching Beijing’s response to the crisis, for a couple of reasons (in addition to any worst-case Olympic scenarios).The first will be to see how real recent transformations in Beijing’s disaster response policies are, including a new network of emergency management offices and provisions which give local leaders more autonomy in times of crisis. So far, the speed with which Beijing has responded has been impressive. Can it be sustained and intensified?

The second will be to gauge Beijing’s commitment to transparency with regard to the scale and scope of the quake’s impact. So far, information seems to have flowed relatively freely to the Western media. As the scale of the disaster increases, and with it the death toll, in all likelihood revealing deficiencies in engineering and infrastructure, it will be interesting to see if these channels of communication remain as open.

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