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Analysis: Politics of Natural Disaster in China

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

One sure thing about the casualties in China is that the number of dead will change. And as we wait for the latest news, we're going to talk about the politics and the omens of yesterday's disaster. We begin with the earthquake itself. It struck as NPR's Melissa Block was conducting an interview with a resident of Chengdu in southern China.

(Soundbite of earthquake)

MELISSA BLOCK: What's going on? The whole building is shaking. The whole building is shaking. My goodness. Pieces - the top of the church is falling down. The ground is shaking underneath our feet, and all of the people are running out in the streets.

INSKEEP: That's Melissa Block of NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. She's gone on to provide one of the few Western accounts of this disaster. And then there were the aftershocks, which aid worker Kay Janice(ph) heard about as she waited for a plane to southwest China.

Ms. KAY JANICE (Aid Worker): Last night, there were something like 1,000 aftershocks. Everybody's still really nervous. I think everyone in and around the area doesn't have a lot of information.

INSKEEP: There are larger reasons that some people in China might get nervous after an earthquake, and to learn more we're joined by NPR's Frank Langfitt. He spent five years as a correspondent in China, and he's on the line. Frank, good morning.

FRANK LANGFITT: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How does the Chinese coverage differ from coverage in the West?

LANGFITT: Well, we're still - most of what we're getting actually is from Xinhua, the official news agency there, and when a big thing like this happens, a big event, usually Xinhua is the one that leads, because it is so important and it's important, I think, for the government there to try to get out one main message to its people.

The numbers so far, as I guess we've heard, is about 10,000 dead now in Sichuan Province, and another 10,000, according to Xinhua, buried in the city of Mianzhu, which is about 60 miles from the epicenter.

INSKEEP: And let's talk about the larger meanings of those numbers. How concerned would Chinese officials be to have this disaster right before the Olympics?

LANGFITT: Well, you know, the whole idea of the Olympics, from the Chinese government's perspective, is that China has changed. It has become a very successful country. It's becoming a world power. And what they didn't want was any sort of big problems or challenges. And obviously, this is a terrible tragedy. They're going to get a lot of scrutiny in terms of how the government responds to this. And it comes at a very difficult time. As you remember, just in March there were these uprisings in Tibet that pretty clearly nobody in Beijing, at least in the government, saw coming, and that has sort of changed the whole focus. Instead of being this great celebration, there has been sort of problem after problem - one, of course, political back in March and now this one, a natural disaster.

INSKEEP: When we hear that top Chinese officials are rushing to the scene, of course that's what you would expect officials to do, but does that also suggest that they're concerned about what this disaster means for them?

LANGFITT: Absolutely. I mean, one thing that's been really interesting to watch in this new group of leaders that was really not true when you looked at the late '90s, is that they're really out there. When there's a natural disaster, they're on the ground almost like elected officials in America, as though even though they're an authoritarian regime, it's almost as though, you know, they're worried about the election in a couple of months. And one of the reasons is there's a lot of tension in China. While there's been great success, there's a huge income gap. There's a lot of concern about corruption. And what the government wants to be seen as doing is being very responsive to the people.

INSKEEP: Well, Frank Langfitt, that leads to another question. When you think about Chinese people, does an earthquake hold the same place in Chinese culture as it does in American culture?

LANGFITT: No, it's actually very different. You know, an earthquake here is simply seen as a natural disaster for the most part. But in Chinese political culture traditionally, an earthquake, a famine, a great flood can sometimes be seen as sort of the end of what's known as the mandate of heaven. And basically, the heavens under Chinese political culture bestow power to leaders. But when they see that those leaders aren't handling the power well, sometimes they take it away. And the way they signal this will be with a great natural disaster. Now, the last time this happened was 1976. You had the death of Zhou Enlai, the premiere. Then the Tangshan earthquake, the last giant earthquake; over 240,000 died. And then the death of Mao Zedong.

Now, I'm not suggesting that this regime is in great trouble. It's relatively popular because of the economic growth that it's produced; almost 12 percent growth last year. But I think the leaders will be a lot more rattled by something like this than, say, some leaders in the West.

INSKEEP: Okay, thanks very much. That's NPR's Frank Langfitt. Appreciate it.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Frank Langfitt
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.