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Did the Chinese Authorities withhold the earthquake warning

On the afternoon of May 12, 2008, an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale hit Sichuan Province, a mountainous region in Western China. Over 100,000 are believed to have died in the quake. In the first few days immediately following the Sichuan earthquake, the Chinese people showed unprecedented solidarity in the rescue effort. Support for victims poured in from all over China and overseas.

The Sichuan earthquake broke the hearts of tens of thousands parents who stared helplessly at fallen school buildings where their only child lay dead under the rubble. Now the victims’ families are questioning the authorities. Why did school buildings collapse like tofu while nearby government buildings remained intact? In the first critical 72 hours, offers to help poured in from international rescue teams. Why did the Chinese authorities reject them? Why was no warning whatsoever given to the public prior to such a major earthquake? Did the Chinese authorities’ failure to alert the public contributes to the severe damage? Could the death of tens of thousands have been avoided?

According to the Law on Earthquake Prevention and Disaster Reduction, any opinions on earthquake forecasting must be reported to State Council and no one shall release the forecast without approval of State Council. [1]

Did Chinese authorities know and yet still withhold the earthquake information?

China’s State Seismological Bureau stated on May 21, 2008, that before the Sichuan earthquake it had not issued or received any earthquake forecasts related to the earthquake.[2]

However, overseas Chinese media have extensive reports that the Chinese authorities did have actual knowledge of the time and location of the upcoming earthquake.

Experts at China’s State Seismological Bureau successfully predicted the Sichuan earthquake and submitted a request to top Chinese leaders through official channels as required to issue a public alert. But the Communist Party leaders reportedly denied the request. The forecast was accurate in indicating the site and time of the earthquake but missed the magnitude. It predicted a 6-point earthquake, instead of the 7.9 one that took place. According to the source, one of the Communist Party’s top leaders denied the request to issue a public alert citing the Olympics and national social stability. [3]

On May 14, 2008, on an English Channel of the State’s China Central TV (CCTV9), the host, Mr. Yang Ri, conducted a telephone interview of Mr. Chen Yiwen from the State’s China Geophysical Society Natural Disaster Forecast Committee. The interview was broadcast live. Mr. Chen said in English that the China Seismological Bureau bears “unshirkable responsibility” for the casualties of the earthquake. He stated that on May 3, 2008, he himself sent a document to the China Seismological Bureau forecasting a major earthquake in the Wenchuan region (in Sichuan Province). He further stated that in the past three years, his Natural Disaster Forecast Committee had issued three mid-term forecasts to the China Seismological Bureau predicting major earthquakes in the Wenchuan region. Predictions made by Chinese earthquake experts had been accurate as to the timing and location but missed the magnitude. [4]

The May 20 Xinhua News report shows it did have actual knowledge. On May 20, the state Xinhua News issued a news briefing quoting Party Secretary of Gansu Province Lu Hao’s statement. Lu said that the Gansu Geological Bureau is “strong in earthquake science and technology capability and in the capacity of earthquake predictions.” “Before and after the Sichuan Wenchuan earthquake, it did a lot of work including forecasting the this earthquake prior to its occurrence.” The Gansu Geological Bureau “had reported the matter to the Provincial government and to the Communist Party Committee.” This Xinhua news was soon removed from the Xinhua website. A snapshot is available to show its existence.

From internal government documents, Mr. Chen confirmed that an earthquake monitoring station in Gansu reported to China’s State Seismological Bureau on April 18 predicting a 7-grade earthquake along the border between Sichuan and Xinjiang.  The Seismological Institute in Wen County, Gansu predicted back in March that a 5.2 earthquake might occur along the border of Sichuan and Qinghai, with the center located in Wenchuan. [5]

An expert who accurately predicted the 1976 Tangshan earthquake predicted that the Abe region (including Wenchuan) might have a 7-grade earthquake within 10 days of May 8, 2008.  His report was submitted to cognizant authorities on April 30, 2008. [6]

Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao, a Chinese language newspaper, received letters from 7 employees of Sichuan Seismological Bureau that their relatives recognized clear signs of the earthquake, but the bureau officials suppressed the information citing the need to maintain stability prior to the Beijing Olympics. At a May 13 State Council press conference, its correspondent asked the spokesperson for State Seismological Bureau for comments. The spokesperson rejected the request by stating that such speculation had no merit. [7]

There is evidence that in some regions the “state secret” about a possible earthquake was leaked out and, as a result, lives were saved. As reported in a local newspaper (Nan Fang Gong Bao), a father learned about the safety of his son, an eighth grader, in a three minutes phone call with the teacher. Apparently, one hour prior to the earthquake, the school received an urgent alert asking the students to immediately evacuate from the school building. Just after the teachers helped students move to a park nearby, the school building and dormitory collapsed in earthquake shocks. No one was injured. [8]

Ms. Wang Xiuyue, a college student attending Sichuan Polytechnic University received a text message from relatives from his hometown, Guangyuan, Sichuan. Warned by local authorities, his grandparents had moved out of house and were safe during the earthquake. It was reported in Xiamen Evenings, on May 14, 2008, but this news was later removed from its website.

From various sources, it is almost certain that the top Chinese leaders had received prior notice and accurate forecasts of the upcoming earthquake. Cover up is a tool that the Communist Party traditionally uses to maintain its control.

Shortly before the earthquake, the China Metrological Bureau held a training workshop from April 23 to 26 in Hangzhou, China on how to maintain the confidentiality of earthquake related information. Top Party leaders briefed and gave instructions to the attendees, “The confidentiality of earthquake information is a matter of political and social stability.” [9]

Watching what has unfolded in China around this issue brings us a sense of déjà vu.  It bears a compelling familiarity to the methods the Chinese regime used to handle SARS, bird flu and AIDS.

Take SARS for example. From Jan to April 2003, Xinhua posted over 400 articles alleging, “bad elements and foreign hostile forces” were stoking up panic and fear about SARS in China. On April 3, 2003, the Health Minister at the time, Zhang Wenkang, declared that China had only a handful of cases of the disease. It was not until Jiang Yanyong, a retired surgeon in the People’s Liberation Army, blew the whistle that the public learned the truth. He disclosed to the international media that at least 100 people were being treated in Beijing hospitals for severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. The revelation prompted China’s top leaders to acknowledge that they had provided false information about the epidemic. As result of the coverup, SARS quickly spread and eventually killed more than 800 people worldwide, and the government came under international scrutiny for failing to provide timely information that medical experts said might have saved lives. For his role in revealing the truth, Jiang Yanyong was arrested and imprisoned.

How much the government knew about the posible earthquake before May 12 and how it came up with the fatal decision not to alert the public will likely remain a state secret. The Chinese authorities have recently tightened control over the media reports about the earthquake, making the topic off limits. As long as the Communist regime puts its need to control and to look great, glorious and correct before its responsibility to serve the people, such tragedies will continue to occur.

[1] China Gate, June 16, 2008
[2] Xinhua, May 21, 2008
[3] Reminbao, May 20, 2008
[4] Boxun, May 21, 2008
[5] Dong Fang Daily, May 26, 2008
[6] Same as above.
[7] People’s Daily, May 13, 2008
[8] Baidu bbs
[9] Min Zhou Yu Fa Zhi bbs (Democracy and Rule of Law)