14 Apr 2010

The sensitivity behind the latest Chinese earthquake

The first tremor woke people up at 5.39am, but in this remote Tibetan region where most live at the mercy of the elements, few took much notice.

Two hours later a huge earthquake, 7.1 on the Richter scale, ripped through Yushu county. According to the government, 85 per cent of houses were destroyed in the main town of Jiegu.

The quake caused landslides, and reportedly cracks appeared in a reservoir threatening to flood a large area where nomads herd their cattle and yaks.  Hospitals are reportedly full, and people are being treated for broken limbs and other injuries in a stadium.

The Sichuan earthquake in May 2008 showed the world how efficient the Chinese government and the People’s Liberation Army can be. They swung into action, digging people out of the rubble and establishing shelters for hundreds of thousands left homeless. At first, the media were allowed to report freely – although restrictions were imposed when it became clear that thousands of children had died in shoddily constructed schools.

This earthquake won’t be so devastating, because the area is sparsely populated. But there’s an extra issue: the people of Yushu are Tibetan herders who are fiercely loyal to the Dalai Lama.

Gatherings are banned in this area, because the Chinese government fears more disturbances after the riots and protests across Tibetan areas in 2008. Yet now people have no choice but to gather, as their homes have collapsed and they’re huddled together in the streets.

The Chinese government has stressed through the day how quickly they’re getting help to people. Seven hundred soldiers based nearby immediately started to clear rubble and rescue people. Another 5,000 soldiers and medical workers have been dispatched.

Chinese people reacted generously to the Sichuan earthquake, some sending money, others loading up their cars with supplies and driving in themselves. It caused traffic jams and some disorder, but the volunteers were welcomed by earthquake victims.

It’ll be different this time. For a start, Yushu is 12 hours drive from Xining, the nearest sizeable city. The temperature drops to freezing at night, and over the next few days, snow, sleet and driving wind are expected. It is 3,000 metres above sea level, a height where many people will get altitude sickness. And the government is worried about people coming into this politically sensitive Tibetan region.

Volunteers trying to get there say that the authorities have already set up roadblocks
80km away from the epicenter to turn away those journalists and aid workers they say don’t have proper documents.