Sometimes An Earthquake Is Just an Earthquake
Last month's temblor on the Tibetan plateau hasn't had the political aftershocks Beijing feared. But that doesn't mean all's well in China's wild west.
In a photograph printed in the May 3 edition of the state-run China Daily newspaper, Wen Jiabao, China's grandfatherly premier, and an ethnic Tibetan earthquake survivor stand face to face in a flattened village, flashing each other an enthusiastic thumbs-up. He wears a black jacket; she holds a prayer wheel. Both grin. It was taken in Yushu county, Qinghai province, where April 14's earthquake killed more than 2,200 people, decimated schools, and flattened rows of modest, mud and wood homes. "Premier Wen Jiabao congratulates a Tibetan woman and other earthquake survivors on their resilience," reads the caption.
In a photograph printed in the May 3 edition of the state-run China Daily newspaper, Wen Jiabao, China’s grandfatherly premier, and an ethnic Tibetan earthquake survivor stand face to face in a flattened village, flashing each other an enthusiastic thumbs-up. He wears a black jacket; she holds a prayer wheel. Both grin. It was taken in Yushu county, Qinghai province, where April 14’s earthquake killed more than 2,200 people, decimated schools, and flattened rows of modest, mud and wood homes. "Premier Wen Jiabao congratulates a Tibetan woman and other earthquake survivors on their resilience," reads the caption.
Nearly one month after a magnitude 7.1 earthquake hit this isolated stretch of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau in western China, search-and-rescue efforts have ceased, and a state-led reconstruction effort is under way. The government aims to clear debris within weeks and rebuild within three years. The propaganda push is equally ambitious: "There will be new schools! There will be new homes!" President Hu Jintao wrote on the blackboard during a visit to a makeshift tent school. "We can overcome the disaster and improve national unity," Wen told survivors on his second visit, adding, "No matter whether you are Tibetans or Hans, you are all in one family."
And there, of course, is the rub.
The earthquake that rattled Qinghai laid bare a politically inconvenient truth: Despite an aggressive campaign to "modernize" China’s western reaches, life on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau is tough — and decidedly Tibetan. The first, grainy images from the scene — rawboned herders and monks digging through muddy rubble by hand — do not square with China’s portrait of the region. In China, Tibet means politics, not people. Aside from oblique references to the "Dalai clique," state media focuses on economic development ("China builds sheds, fodder bases for herdsmen on Qinghai-Tibet Plateau") or flashes pictures of delegates in flashy ethnic dress. Yushu doesn’t fit that script — hence Hu and Wen’s rather forceful insistence that all’s well.
Yushu is thousands of miles from Beijing and far, too, from what Beijing wants the west to be. It sits close to the northeast edge of Tibet Autonomous Region, near the western edge of Sichuan province. The Qinghai-Tibet railway runs some 125 miles to the north, bypassing the region. From the provincial capital, Xining, it takes at least 12 hours by bus to reach the main town, Jiegu. The distance shows. During a trip through Tibetan areas of Sichuan, Gansu, and Qinghai provinces last fall, I saw dozens of ethnic Tibetan towns transformed by state-led development projects and migrants from the east. They had rows of brand-new, whitewashed apartment blocks and lots of police. In Zoige, a dusty, Tibetan town in Gansu province, two pristine, 40-seat police buses dwarfed the police station. At dusk, squad cars paced up and down the streets. Yushu, though, felt different.
When I traveled to Jiegu last October, it was clear that the people placed their allegiance with Lhasa, not Beijing. The Chinese government maintains a small military presence — state media reported there were People’s Liberation Army soldiers stationed there at the time of the quake — but Jiegu didn’t look or sound like a Chinese city. Most of the architecture was Tibetan. The town’s central square featured a statue of Gesar, a Tibetan folk hero. Few people spoke Mandarin Chinese. There were illegal portraits of the Dalai Lama everywhere — "His Holiness," as the locals call him, graced tea shops, wallets, and rearview mirrors. The people I met knew much more about Dharamsala than eastern, central, or southern China. One young monk told me that he’d never heard of Hong Kong. When my travel companion, a Chinese-American photographer, said she’d spent time in Indiana, his face lit up: "The Dalai Lama went there!"
It’s no wonder, then, that China’s ruling party is worried about Qinghai: Not only is the government struggling with the ethnic tensions the quake brought to the fore, but it’s also dealing with lingering questions over construction that have plagued it since the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. These worries are written all over the headlines: "Environment, local culture key to Yushu reconstruction," one China Daily headline reads. "Wen calls for scientific rebuilding of quake zone," assures a Xinhua article. The media has highlighted praise from foreign leaders: "DPRK lauds China’s quake relief efforts," Chinese state media notes.
After the quake, I wondered whether footage from the scene might change the way China talked about Tibetans. A Newsweek.com article argued it would. The Qinghai quake would help "the average Chinese to see both the poverty and humanity of a region they’re used to seeing only in political terms," wrote correspondent Isaac Stone Fish. The story, of course, was censored in China — though it did run, as an excerpt, in a paper called Cankao Xiaoxi (translation here). In that version, the sentence I’ve quoted was excised, as was most everything else. If footage from the scene did change minds on the ground, we may never know. On the matter of the state’s response to the Qinghai earthquake, the state has delivered its verdict: two thumbs up. And that, for now, is the end of the story.
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