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May 19, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright May 19, 2008 Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley. Used by permission.


Media reports of this week’s devastating earthquake in Sichuan highlight trends seen as impressive and new in terms of PRC responses to disaster. The quick response of state leaders symbolized by Premier Wen Jiabao’s much-heralded arrival in the disaster area only five hours after the earthquake hit on Monday, for instance, stands in stark contrast to the PRC’s handling of major catastrophes during the Mao-era, when Chairman Mao and other top leaders failed to act on reports that people were starving to death by the thousands during the Great Leap Famine of 1959-61. An estimated 30 million people died as a result of that famine, making it the most lethal famine in world history.

The willingness of the Chinese government to accept international aid, and most recently even rescue teams from Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore, provides an equally sharp contrast to the Mao-era government’s determination to keep news of the Great Leap Famine a secret, even if that required increasing grain exports to neighboring countries during the disaster rather than requesting foreign aid. The rapidity of the response and the massive scale of the government-led relief effort—100 rescue helicopters dropping soldiers into remote areas and 130,000 soldiers and medics mobilized for relief work within three days of the earthquake—may be new for Americans as well, particularly for those who recall how victims of Hurricane Katrina waited for a full week before 50,000 members of the U.S. National Guard were finally dispatched to the disaster area.

While helicopter drops and the acceptance of Japanese rescue teams are new for China, other facets of this week’s earthquake relief effort display interesting similarities to relief campaigns carried out in late imperial China. As a historian of famines in nineteenth-century China, I was intrigued to read that just as the rulers of China’s last dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911), sought to shore up social stability during disasters by seeking to regulate grain prices in famine areas, on Thursday (5/15) China’s current government imposed temporary controls on food prices and transportation fares in the quake-hit areas of Sichuan, Gansu, and Shaanxi in an attempt to stop hoarding and speculation. Officials even punished seventeen people for profiteering.