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Earthquake in Tibet

10:48 AM, Apr 19, 2010 • By KELLEY CURRIE
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The U.S. Geological Survey maintains that the earthquake that hit the remote Tibetan town of Jyeku (the Chinese call it Yushu) in the early morning of April 14 measured 6.9 on the Richter scale, while the Chinese government has said that the quake's intensity was 7.1 (which would mean that it was approximately the same strength as the brutal earthquake that recently hit Haiti).  By any measure, though, this was a strong quake that has devastated an area largely untouched by China's economic miracle.

Earthquake in Tibet

Media reports indicate that upwards of 85 percent of buildings in the area have been destroyed, at least 1000 killed, and thousands more have sustained injuries.  According to one report from the scene, Tibetan monks comprise of a disproportionate number of those who perished as many were inside prayer halls when the wooden monasteries collapsed.  The fact that fatalities have been nowhere near those of the Haiti quake is due primarily to the region's extremely low population density. Nonetheless, the population center of Jyeku, where rescue efforts are currently centered, had experienced rapid growth in recent years as the Chinese government implemented a plan to force nomads to resettle in town. These unskilled herders -- they had previously tended livestock on the grasslands -- were also likely hit hard by the quake, living as they did in clusters of hastily-built substandard housing.  

It appears the Chinese government has done an admirable job of rushing rescue teams and supplies to the area, but the efforts have been hampered by the remoteness of the location, its extreme high altitude (4000 meters above sea level), and, according to some anecdotal reports, cultural misunderstandings between the largely Han Chinese rescuers and the local Tibetan communities.  Radio Free Asia reported comments from one local resident claiming that Tibetans believed that the earthquake was set off by Chinese mining of a nearby mountain they consider sacred.  (And in the department of unintended consequences, the larger Chinese military presence on the Tibetan plateau since the 2008 unrest, including throughout Tibetan areas of Qinghai province, may have facilitated the rapid deployment of military resources to the quake-hit zone.)  

There have been reports of violence and looting during food and tent distribution efforts, due to a lack of supplies getting through.  One Tibetan-run NGO with deep roots in the community recently sent around an update to supporters that expressed concern about locating its relief staging operations in the town of Jyeku due to fears of looting.  Many foreign media included positive stories on Tibetan monks and Chinese soldiers working together to find victims and bodies, but a New York Times story on tensions between the groups seems to undercut this image of camaraderie. The Chinese government's orders to put a positive spin on earthquake coverage and the dearth of foreign media in the area have made it difficult to sort out what is really happening on the ground.


Given that the population of the affected area is 97 percent ethnically Tibetan, the rescue effort in Jyeku is of particular political sensitivity for the Chinese government.  During the 2008 protests that swept the Tibetan plateau, Jyeku was home to peaceful anti-government demonstrations. The political significance was evident as Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao postponed and cancelled foreign travel. Instead, Wen quickly traveled to the quake zone to inspect rescue efforts, and the Dalai Lama (who was born in what is now Qinghai) also offered to travel to Jyeku to assist his followers and to pray for the dead -- an offer almost certain to be rejected by Beijing.  If the central government is seen as doing less or devoting fewer resources to the rescue operation than was done in response to the massive May 2008 Sichuan earthquake, it will serve to further alienate the Tibetan and Chinese populations.  It will also be important to note what role monasteries and Tibetan community organizations -- which were the first responders after the quake -- will be allowed to have during both the continued rescue efforts and the longer rebuilding phase.  The remoteness of this area has both ensured its economic privation and allowed the local community to keep its Tibetan cultural identity largely intact. When the rescue effort is over, reconstruction -- and the influx of new actors (such as Chinese migrant laborers) and attention from the Chinese state that comes with it -- will present a host of long-term challenges.  One way the Chinese can turn this tragedy to a more positive future is to give the local Tibetan communities the lead role in determining the nature of reconstruction and redevelopment.

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