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May 22, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright May 22, 2008 Steve Smith. Used by permission.


One of the intriguing aspects of the appalling crisis created by the earthquake in Sichuan on May 12—whose death toll as I write is over 40,000 and still rising—has been the role played by rumor. Just four days before the quake, the Sichuan provincial government issued a notice designed to quell “earthquake rumors.” Three days after it, on May15, Xinhua news agency announced that seventeen people had been arrested for circulating malicious rumors, and the Ministry of Public Security revealed that its bureaus in eleven provinces and municipalities had discovered more than forty messages on the internet that “spread false information, made sensational statements and sapped public confidence.”

In the weeks leading up to May 12, warnings of an imminent earthquake emanated from various quarters. Most significantly, Li Shihui, a scientist at the laboratory of geo-mechanical engineering of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, claimed on his blog that in April the seismologist, Geng Qingguo, vice-chair of the Committee for Natural Disaster Prediction at the China Geophysical Institute, had predicted a quake of 7 or more on the Richter scale in the Aba Tibetan and Qiang autonomous prefecture of Sichuan. On April 30, he claimed, the Committee for Natural Disaster Prediction had passed on a confidential report about his prediction to the China Seismology Bureau. Others less qualified posted warnings of an earthquake on their blogs, although most were vague on detail. On May 7, allegedly, a geological worker from Wuhan posted a notice on the internet predicting that an earthquake would strike on 12 May: “the epicenter should be quite near Wuhan. I hope Wuhan residents who see my blog will inform all relatives and friends and take precautions.” Another blogger claimed to have an uncle working in the Sichuan Seismological Bureau: “Even when there were already signs indicating an earthquake, the Sichuan Seismological Bureau still suppressed and failed to report the information, completely disregarding people’s lives.” On the basis of internet chat and reports in the press, a slew of rumors began to circulate that caused many citizens to contact their local earthquake prevention and disaster relief boards. Anxiety seems to have run particularly high in Aba county, specifically mentioned as the epicenter in Geng Qingguo’s unpublished report, and significantly, a major center of pro-Tibetan riots a couple of weeks earlier. The authorities were quick to deny the rumors. On May 9, the Sichuan provincial government issued a statement: