China’s earthquake watcher

Independent analysis of government policy is rare and generally unwelcome in China; it’s even rarer for such advice to be followed. But an exception that proves the rule is when the advice-giver has a direct line to decision-makers, and when there’s serious state money to be saved.  While in southwest China recently, I caught up ...

AFP/AFP/Getty Images
AFP/AFP/Getty Images
AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Independent analysis of government policy is rare and generally unwelcome in China; it's even rarer for such advice to be followed. But an exception that proves the rule is when the advice-giver has a direct line to decision-makers, and when there's serious state money to be saved. 

While in southwest China recently, I caught up with Yong Yang, a rabble-rousing independent geologist who has previously faced death threats from businessmen and local officials for raising concerns about the feasibility of lucrative proposed projects. 

One story he shared seems particularly poignant now, on the second anniversary of the May 12 Wenchuan earthquake.  

Independent analysis of government policy is rare and generally unwelcome in China; it’s even rarer for such advice to be followed. But an exception that proves the rule is when the advice-giver has a direct line to decision-makers, and when there’s serious state money to be saved. 

While in southwest China recently, I caught up with Yong Yang, a rabble-rousing independent geologist who has previously faced death threats from businessmen and local officials for raising concerns about the feasibility of lucrative proposed projects. 

One story he shared seems particularly poignant now, on the second anniversary of the May 12 Wenchuan earthquake.  

At the time the earthquake struck on May 12, 2008, Yong was in the field conducting research when he received a mobile text message (voice-networks were down) from his son, a college student in the provincial capital of Chengdu: a big earthquake has struck Sichuan province — go find a TV.  

Yong hunkered down at a local restaurant to watch broadcast of the devastation. He had previously warned government officials about the vulnerability of certain buildings in the quake-vulnerable zone, but to no avail. 

Now he knew that dams along the region’s Minjiang River were in danger of collapsing, and if they did, several large hydropower stations along the river could be flooded and destroyed. He was already making arrangements to leave the next morning to conduct an investigation of the damage, but before he did he sent a text message to an influential friend who happens to be a former Vice General Secretary of the National People’s Congress: turn off the hydro-power stations; watch for damage. 

Usually following the advice of environmental watchdogs would cost the government money, putting the kabosh on various money-making projects. But in this case, Yong’s advice concerned how to save 30 billion RMB in state investments. 

And this time, his advice was followed. The next day, the government gave orders to release water from dams along the Minjiang River.  

Yong meanwhile continued on to the quake-stricken region, where he and a small band of fellow scientists tried to make sense of what to do next. Predictably, not all of their subsequent suggestions about rebuilding and conservation have been followed. But when Yong has information useful to the government that Beijing doesn’t have, at least he has an in. His next project is a study of glacier melt on the Tibetan-Qinghai plateau.

Christina Larson is an award-winning foreign correspondent and science journalist based in Beijing, and a former Foreign Policy editor. She has reported from nearly a dozen countries in Asia. Her features have appeared in the New York Times, Wired, Science, Scientific American, the Atlantic, and other publications. In 2016, she won the Overseas Press Club of America’s Morton Frank Award for international magazine writing. Twitter: @larsonchristina

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