A man pushes his motorbike through flooded streets in the aftermath of typhoon Matsa in Shanghai. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN.

Disasters in China, whether natural or man-made, are amplified in magnitude by the size and density of its population. Historically, the Chinese have been reticent to publicize the seriousness and scope of its disasters. Contemporary China is taking greater steps to minimize the effects of disasters through stringent building and environmental regulations while accepting greater amounts of external aid and expert advice.

Described as “a land of floods, fault lines, and food crises,” China is certainly not immune to disasters. A quick glance at any top-ten list of historical disasters will reveal China’s unfortunate prominence. Whether it is flooding along the Huang (Yellow) or Yangzi (Chang) rivers, earthquakes in Tangshan or Shaanxi, a dam failure at Banqiao, or an industrial accident at Jilin, China has had its share of devastating disasters both natural and human caused. Because of China’s geology, geography, and huge population, the country’s disasters often take on monumental proportions.

China is also renowned for it secretiveness, which means that often the extent of disasters is unknown as the Chinese government is reluctant to disclose details. Chinese officials, dating far back into history, have craved order, fearing that situations could spin into chaos and result in unintended consequences, especially for political leaders. In 1351 and 1644, the Chinese people rose in revolt against their leaders in the face of severe famine and floods, resulting in the establishment of two of China’s greatest dynasties, the Ming and Qing. In the past, Chinese officials, both public and private, have also attempted to deny or cover up disasters, especially the human-caused variety, as was the case following the Jilin chemical plant explosion in 2005. Nevertheless, as the frequency and scope of disasters have increased in the past century, China has had to increasingly allow for greater international scrutiny and assistance not only in its attempts to predict or minimize disasters but also to clean up from them.

Natural Disasters

1556 Shaanxi Earthquake

In the early morning of 23 January 1556, Hua County in Shaanxi Province became the epicenter of an earthquake estimated to have measured 8.0–8.3 on the Richter scale. The quake was so strong that observers witnessed plateaus and plains cracking, mountains moving, trees becoming inverted, hills rising, and valleys sinking. Some witnesses reported that rivers changed direction. Schools, temples, city walls, and government buildings collapsed. The eight provinces surrounding the epicenter were most devastated; however, the effects of the quake were felt in a hundred counties across ten provinces. The stricken area experienced three to five aftershocks during the next six months, although other reports suggest that the aftershocks lingered for nearly three years.

Occurring in a densely populated area with poorly constructed houses, the Shaanxi earthquake wreaked destruction over an area of 804 square kilometers. Few people survived in the 400-square-mile area from the epicenter (estimates suggest that three-quarters of the people at the epicenter perished). People died not only from the quake itself but also from resultant floods, landslides, lootings, and from fires that burned for days. Although the method of counting the dead and injured was not reliable, estimates put the dead at 830,000, making the Shaanxi earthquake the most destructive quake in history and the third-most destructive natural disaster in history. Many people lived outdoors and were killed by falling debris. Many people died when landslides caused the collapse of the loess cave dwellings (yaodongs) in the Shensi Cliffs (loess is a grayish silt/clay that is not strong enough to resist such a powerful movement of the earth). People were buried alive.

The best description of the quake was written by a witness, the scholar Qin Keda, in A Chronicle of the Violent Earthquake. Keda not only paints a despairing picture of the catastrophe but also provides the earliest suggestions of how people should react to an earthquake—suggestions still stressed today. Keda recommended that people find a place inside a dwelling or other structure that is sturdy and safe so that nothing can fall on them and remain indoors after the initial jolt to avoid injury from aftershocks.

In the aftermath of the quake people began to rebuild their homes, but the construction materials used were bamboo and wood—materials that are more flexible and better able to withstand the jarring movements of an earthquake and that are also less likely to collapse. And if they do collapse, they are less dangerous to people who are struck by them.

1876 North China Famine

Beginning in 1876 and lasting three years, the worst natural famine in world history struck five provinces in north China: Shantung, Chihli, Honan, Shansi, and Shensi. The famine had been preceded by a drought in the previous two years and was aggravated by the depletion of grain stocks and the provision of grain to the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) military campaigns of the 1860s and 1870s, reducing the peasants’ ability to deal with drought when it struck.

Experts estimate that in China famine occurred in at least one province every year from 108 BCE to 1911 CE. Often the famines occurred because of drought or flood. This pattern has caused China to be known as the “Land of Famine.” The frequent occurrences of famine have placed a tremendous burden on the Chinese state, whose historical role has been to provide for the general welfare of the populace. The state goes to great lengths to promote agricultural production while ensuring that the people possess both the tools and skills necessary to till the land. Unlike the more modern mind-set regarding population size, the Chinese have never viewed population growth as an impediment to development but rather as a sign of prosperity. The Chinese state’s inability to maintain the basic needs of the people generally has indicated a failure of its fundamental nature.

The Chinese often refer to disasters as tianzai (heavenly calamities) except for famine, which is referred to as zaihuang, a disaster that results from human interactions with nature. A combination of disasters—for example, flood-famine, drought-famine—is often interpreted by the Chinese to mean that the state has lost the Mandate of Heaven.

Compounding the severity of the 1876 famine was the rise of European imperialism and its negative effects on the Chinese state and agriculture as well as the Qing dynasty’s limited response to the unfolding disaster. For centuries the Chinese economy had been built on an “independent peasant economy and smallholder agriculture along with exchanges within local markets,” which was undermined by “imperial bankruptcy and British aggressions” (Raghavan 2008), not to mention the substitution of grain production for opium production, which caused food prices to soar. The Qing dynasty was further preoccupied “with international issues [especially European encroachment], rising military costs, local disturbances in many provinces and the high cost of transferring grain via the backward transport system” (Myers 1985, 370) of the country. Additionally, the earlier Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864) had
destroyed some of China’s best farmlands, so it is no surprise that the Chinese people regarded the series of events leading to the great famine as “Heaven’s anger at human misdeeds as the underlying cause” of the famine (Edgerton-Tarpley, 2004).

“Heaven’s Anger”

Indeed, “Heaven’s anger” was ferocious. During a two-year period the famine claimed nearly twelve thousand lives per day. The three-year drought affected 100 million people, killing 9–13 million (although official Chinese estimates placed the death toll nearer 20 million). In the five provinces affected, with a total population of 108 million, some areas reported death rates of 60–90 percent. Although the major cause of the famine was drought, the major cause of death was not starvation but rather epidemic disease, particularly cholera and malaria. In a sad irony, the outbreak of disease coincided with improving drought conditions.

The famine challenged the Qing dynasty’s ability to provide for the welfare of its people, methods of relief for famine victims, and long-held Confucian values. At the national level, the government issued little news of the famine and tried to cover up its existence. The government went so far as to forbid foreigners from entering the affected area for the duration of the famine. Nonetheless, foreign accounts and commentaries, made available through translations in local papers, detailed China’s inability to assist its own citizens. These accounts resulted in a growing sense among the Chinese that their civilization, long believed to be at the center of the universe, had failed.

The Qing dynasty had established in the eighteenth century a famine relief system that worked quite well and underpinned the legitimacy of the Qing dynasty. However, by the nineteenth century people began to sense that the government was no longer capable of caring for its people because of the continuous cycles of flood and famine. Adding to the government’s problems in providing relief were bad roads, poor transportation systems, insufficient amounts of relief aid, and corruption. The government also resorted to using the army to massacre peasants attempting to flee rural areas to cities in order to escape the famine. As the government dealt with external preoccupations, the famine was worsened by “the rapid decline in state capacity and popular welfare followed in lockstep with the Chinese Empire’s forced ‘opening’ to modernity by Britain and other countries” (Raghavan, 2). Aid for famine victims would come from the outside and from distant Chinese elites.

However, local leaders resisted outside aid, convinced that such aid and the presence of foreigners to deliver such aid would further undermine government legitimacy, leading to the possibility of rebellion. Nonetheless, foreigners in the affected areas began to organize relief efforts. Those efforts began in London in 1878 and represented the first attempt by foreigners to assist the Chinese people afflicted by famine. Guo Songtao, Chinese ambassador to Great Britain, acknowledged those efforts in a short article published in The Times of London. Foreign missionaries, most notably Timothy Richard of the Baptist Missionary Society, used the relief systems to proselytize and spread the gospel. Foreign relief activity was crucial to establishing the China Famine Relief Fund Committee, designed not only to provide relief in times of famine but also to address the underlying issues of rural poverty and lack of modernization in China.

First Broad-Based Aid Campaign

The relief efforts were the first broad-based public campaign to raise money and provide relief to victims of famine in China. The campaign spurred on foreigners and local elites in China to assist the victims. Criticizing the imperial government’s efforts, local elites assisted others outside of their local territories, putting them in direct competition with foreign efforts. The intersection of relief efforts by a myriad of competing groups in Chinese society—for example, the government, elites, and foreigners—provided an impetus for the emergence of modern Chinese nationalism. However, that nationalism clashed with historical Confucian values.

Extreme disasters, such as prolonged famine, challenge long-held value systems. Traditional Chinese Confucian values, especially the notions of filial piety and female chastity, strained under the immense suffering. As Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley has pointed out, the famine challenged the “definitions of moral & immoral responses” (Edgerton-Tarpley 2008, 121) to disaster. The role of women in Chinese society was either upended or confirmed in the affected areas. Knowledge of people starving, people committing suicide, women selling themselves to obtain money to purchase food, and people sacrificing wives and children for older mothers (and older female in-laws) strained social relationships. Edgerton-Tarpley cites an example of “Shanghai’s merchants and elites using female images of famine to motivate the Chinese to rescue women in order to prevent the Chinese from national humiliation” (Edgerton-Tarpley, 2005). Ultimately the famine would deal another blow to traditional Confucian values in a country already under attack from the modernizing forces of the outside world.

1931 Yangzi & Huang River Floods

“The deadliest natural disaster ever,” “the worst disaster of the 20th century,” “the greatest disaster in China’s history,” “the deadliest water-related disasters in human history” (Harnsberger, 2002): All of these labels have been attached to the massive flooding of the Yangzi and Huang rivers in central China that occurred from July to November 1931. Central to Chinese life and economy, the Yangzi and Huang rivers have also been central to the history of Chinese disasters. The Yangzi, flowing 6,300 kilometers and literally dividing China in half geographically, has been at the center of a debate about flood control since the beginning of the twentieth century.

The most controversial response to the flooding problem has been construction of the Three Gorges Dam, which began in 1994 and will be completed in 2011 with installation of the final electrical generators. The Huang River, whose length is more than 6,100 kilometers, has produced more than fifteen hundred floods in 3,500 years and is responsible for killing the most human beings in natural disasters, thus its nickname “China’s Sorrow.” At the time the 1931 floods received scant attention from the world press because they occurred within the context of a civil war raging in China between the Communists and nationalists, an invasion of Manchuria by the Japanese, and a world gripped by the Great Depression.

A confluence of weather-related incidents preceded the floods. A drought in the region, combined with heavy snows in the winter of 1930–31, severe thawing in the spring of 1931, and rains in the summer of 1931 that dropped nearly one-half of central China’s annual precipitation in one month, caused extreme rises in the rivers’ waters. More important, the region was struck by seven cyclones in July alone, a month that generally averages only two cyclones. The additional waters not only caused the main rivers to rise but also caused the nearly seven hundred tributaries to swell, setting the stage for a calamity. The flooding affected an area of 112,000 square kilometers, covering some of China’s most fertile farmland. In places the flood waters were 3–4.5 meters deep and kept the affected area flooded for three to six months. Damage estimates ranged from $1.4 billion to $2 billion (in 1931 dollars). The floods left 40 million people homeless and an estimated 400,000 to 4 millio
n people dead. There were also unconfirmed reports of people selling their wives and daughters and practicing infanticide and cannibalism. The worst tragedy of the floods occurred on August 25, when the water in the Grand Canal collapsed the dikes around Gaoyou Lake, drowning 200,000 people.

In response to the disaster the Chinese government committed $600,000 in relief aid, while the American Red Cross offered $100,000. Emperor Hirohito of Japan personally donated $27,000 to aid survivors; two months later, on 18 September, his armed forces invaded Manchuria. The League of Nations offered the use of its epidemiologists to stem the resultant spread of diseases, while the U.S. Navy helped to reestablish communications between the city of Hankow and Shanghai. The famed U.S. aviator Charles Lindbergh assisted in relief operations. The Chinese government’s National Flood Relief Commission embarked on a rebuilding program that included constructing new dikes, levees, and retention basins, although the work took nearly twenty years to complete. After 1950 the government also undertook programs to improve the main river protection systems, including flood warning and evacuation plans as well as better controls to minimize the spread of diseases.

1976 Tangshan Earthquake

On 28 July 1976, coal miner Li Yulin drove an ambulance for six hours to Beijing to inform leaders of the central government that the city of Tangshan had been destroyed by an earthquake. Scattered throughout the country were five thousand earthquake-monitoring locations, installed after the 1966 Xingtai earthquake to detect seismic activity and to alert officials. However, the system failed on this day in 1976. Lasting about fifteen seconds, the earthquake struck Tangshan in the early morning when nearly all of its inhabitants were asleep. Chinese officials initially remained silent about the disaster, although the international community was aware, because of seismographic readings, that a devastating quake had occurred.

A city of 1 million people located in Hebei Province 160 kilometers southeast of Beijing, Tangshan was China’s largest producer of coal as well as a steel center manufacturing engines, trains, and heavy machinery. The Tangshan quake is believed to have been the worst earthquake in the twentieth century and the second-worst earthquake in history behind the Shaanxi quake of 1556.

The Tangshan quake registered 7.8–8.3 on the Richter scale. The calamity was described as follows: “the ground turned clockwise for a few seconds, then counterclockwise, then thrust upward” (Spignesi 2005, 48). Almost immediately 650,000 homes were destroyed, along with hospitals, train tracks, bridges, industrial plants, reservoirs, electrical lines, water pumping stations, and factories. The loss of the city’s infrastructure hampered rescue efforts. The damage was compounded the next day by an aftershock measuring 7.1. The damage occurred within a 30,000-kilometer area and was felt over one-third of the country. As it had in the Shaanxi earthquake, the quality of building construction played a major role in the Tangshan devastation. The quake intensity measured XI on the Mercali scale—another scale, with a range from I to XII, used to measure earthquake force—but the buildings were designed to withstand shocks of only VI on the scale. Nearly 85 percent of Tangshan’s buildings were located on the unstable Luanhe River’s floodplain. The ground underneath the buildings was literally liquefied by the tremors.

Death Count Disputed

Deaths were largely caused by injuries and disease. Approximately 80 percent of the deaths occurred because victims were buried under debris, unable to dig themselves out or to survive until rescued. To this day there is not an accurate total of the dead because the Chinese government refuses to release a final tally. Officials initially calculated the number of dead at 655,000 but in 1979 lowered the number to between 240,000 and 250,000. In The Great Tangshan Earthquake of 1976: An Anatomy of Disaster, the authors, officials of the State Seismological Bureau, pinpointed the number of dead at 242,919. Outside experts have disputed the government’s numbers, arguing that the total may have been closer to 750,000. Regardless, the government, after a few days’ delay, mounted a massive rescue and relief operation. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) sent 150,000 troops to the area; however, the troops were improperly equipped and were forced to dig with their bare hands, thus slowing rescue operations. Nearly four hundred aircraft per day operated in and out of the quake zone, and 160 special health-care trains provided medical assistance. The government even sprayed disinfectant to stem the spread of disease.

The overall damage was estimated at $1.25 billion (10 billion yuan). Ultimately officials decided to rebuild the city on the same location at a cost of nearly $8 million. The project took nearly ten years. The rebuilt Tangshan reflected the overall design of the city and the construction of buildings suitable to an earthquake zone. Buildings were constructed of materials such as reinforced concrete to better withstand earthquake forces. The better building practices were incorporated into an updated seismic design code released in 1978. The updated code was designed to reduce deaths and injuries in the event of another earthquake by creating wider and safer spaces between buildings, reducing congestion to facilitate access by rescue vehicles and heavy machinery needed for rescue operations, and creating more parks and open spaces that can accommodate temporary shelters or hospitals for the displaced or injured. Guidelines for rescue and recovery operations also were updated. Planners recognized that rescue workers need appropriate equipment, that the control of the flow of traffic is essential to permit heavy equipment access to a disaster zone, and that city planning needs redundancy in the “lifelines”—for example, roads, bridges, water, and electrical supplies—to avoid the shutdown of infrastructure needed for relief and rescue operations.

Improved Response

New policies also called for moving the displaced population into permanent dwellings as early as possible to minimize the economic, social, and psychological effects from a quake. Lastly, the bureaucratic processes for warning local populations of an impending quake were revised. Last-minute warnings had preceded the Tangshan quake, but officials had too little time to process the information and warn citizens. For future disasters local revolutionary committees were given the authority to warn citizens directly without the delay of channeling information through China’s vast state bureaucracy.

Socially, the Tangshan quake reinforced in the minds of many Chinese the traditional notion that natural disasters foretell the death of emperors and political leaders. Occurring in late July, the earthquake preceded the death of Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong by seven weeks (Mao died 9 September 1976). Politically, the quake hastened the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). The death of Premier Zhou Enlai in January 1976 and the feebleness of Mao set off a power struggle within the Chinese Communist Party. Leaders attempted to use the disaster in Tangshan to demonstrate the strength of their leadership. They refused international assistance, instead choosing to organize a “Resist the Earthquake, Rescue Ourselves” campaign to assist victims of the quake. The Gang of Four saw the disaster as an opportunity to “display the socialist system’s superiority of being self-reliant” (Xinhua News Agency, “30 years after the Tangshan Earthquake”). Jiang Qing (Madame Mao), a member of the Gang of Four, spoke on state radio not to remind the Chinese people that China’s immediate priority was
Tangshan but rather to denounce Deng Xiaoping, one of the leading reformers calling for modernization. Deng would become China’s premier in the 1980s and 1990s.

Upon Mao’s death Hua Guofeng ascended to the chairmanship of the Communist Party. Hua received overwhelming public support largely because he made a personal visit to the Tangshan disaster area. Hua had the Gang of Four arrested, put on trial, and imprisoned, effectively ending the Cultural Revolution and ushering in a new era of openness and economic growth for the country.

2008 Sichuan Earthquake

China’s deadliest earthquake since the 1976 Tangshan earthquake struck at 2:28 p.m. on 12 May 2008, in Sichuan Province. Nearly 15 million people lived in the quake zone, which is also home to the Wolong Nature Preserve, the largest panda bear reserve in China. The reserve was nearly 80 percent destroyed or damaged, threatening China’s national symbol. Registering 8.0 on the Richter scale, the quake was felt as far as 1,500 kilometers away in Beijing as well as in the neighboring countries of Taiwan, Vietnam, and Thailand. More than 21,000 aftershocks were reported as of June 2008, according to the China Earthquake Administration. The hardest-hit area was within 100 kilometers of the epicenter, with nearly 80 percent of structures destroyed in smaller cities and villages. Bridges collapsed, dams cracked, schools crumbled, and 3.5 million homes were destroyed. The Chinese government mobilized 130,000 soldiers, police officers, and relief workers to assist those most affected by the destruction.

The State Council of Information reported that as of early July 2008 the toll stood at 69,195 dead, 374,176 wounded, and 18,389 missing. The number of people evacuated from the quake zone reached 1.5. million, but 14 million survivors needed to rebuild their homes.

Transparent and Personal

As has been the case after previous disasters, Chinese society underwent political and social transformations after the Sichuan earthquake. The official response to the disaster was more transparent and personal than responses of the past. Media coverage of the quake was immediate, ongoing, and open. The state news agency, Xinhua, not only broke the story but also regularly updated the casualty figures and news on rescue and relief operations. The news agency also provided the first-ever announcement of the number of estimated dead. Chinese Central Television initiated live, nonstop coverage—an unprecedented action for a natural disaster in China. Home videos, cell phone pictures, and personal commentary flowed unrestricted onto websites. The State Central Propaganda Department initially ordered that journalists could not enter the quake zone; however, two Chinese journalists from The Oriental Morning Post, Yu Song and Wang Juilang, ignored the order and filed the first unofficial accounts of the quake along with images. Their actions forced the propaganda department to rescind its order.

In another surprising action, albeit on a more personal note, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, China’s leading political figure, flew immediately to the earthquake zone to direct rescue and relief operations. “Grandpa Wen” declared a “people first” policy in stark contrast to official response to the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, when Communist Party officials first denied the quake, then attempted to cover up its severity, instead focusing the Chinese people’s attention on denouncing Deng Xiaoping, one of the leading reformers calling for modernization. However, Wen’s action is not unprecedented: Prime Minister Hua Guofeng had made a personal appearance at the site of the 1976 Tangshan quake.

Police set up roadblocks outside the Sichuan zone to facilitate the donation of cash and other gifts for the survivors as well as to monitor the flow of “volunteers (upwards of 10 million people) from as far away as Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzou” (Xinhua News Agency, “From Tangshan to Wenchuan”) who streamed into the disaster area. Foreign and domestic donations to aid quake victims surpassed $6.4 billion. The government established the biggest charity fund ever to handle the stream of donations. Xinhua reported that “the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) announced…that it has provided 8.06 billion yuan (1.17 billion U.S. dollars) in loans to companies and public utilities for reconstruction… The ICBC, the country’s largest lender, also said it had signed a financing agreement for supporting reconstruction projects with the municipal government of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. China’s financial agencies had issued a total of 52.95 billion yuan in reconstruction loans for quake-stricken areas by Sunday, of which 44.6 billion yuan went to the hardest-hit Sichuan. Meanwhile, the government allocated 54.82 billion yuan to a disaster relief fund, including 49.71 billion yuan from the central budget and the rest from local budgets” (Xinhua News Agency, “ICBC provides…”).

In another first, the nation’s blood banks filled to capacity, and additional donors were instructed to wait before donating.

Foreign Rescuers Admitted

In addition to cash donations, the Chinese government accepted rescue teams from Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, thus reaping the additional consequence of improved relations between the donor countries and Beijing.

In response to the disaster the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development released new standards for school construction. The government also imposed price controls on food and transportation within the quake zone to prevent profiteering. The government also agreed to pay the medical expenses of those injured or affected by the quake. Communist Party officials organized mental-health case workers in a first-ever attempt to provide mental and psychological services to victims of a disaster. The government also ordered that flags be flown at half-staff throughout the country to honor the victims of the quake—the first time that ordinary people have been honored in this fashion. A period of national mourning was declared from 19–21 May, and all public events, including the 2008 Olympic Games torch relay, were suspended.

The most closely followed story resulting from the quake’s destruction was the fallout after ten thousand schoolchildren were killed when more than seven thousand schools collapsed. The deaths of so many children led to public protests against faulty school building construction, negligence, and allegations of corruption. (Since 2001 the Chinese government has allocated more than $1.5 billion to repair and upgrade schools; however, school construction codes are rarely enforced.) The Chinese government launched an investigation into the charges but attempted to keep the investigation low profile. The government, aware that rural schools are highly susceptible to damage from quakes, asked Chinese news organizations to discontinue their reporting on unsafe schools. The unusual public demonstrations by parent-protesters resulted in violent clashes with police and arrests. In response to protests by parents who lost their children when schools collapsed, the government issued checks for $144 to parents whose children were killed. This payment is the usual subsidy provided under China’s “one-child policy,” a subsidy distributed when parents reach age sixty. The government promised additional monies when the government investigation establishes additional human negligence regarding school construction. The government also agreed to provide compensation for any children injured in the quake. These monies are crucial because without children Chinese parents, lacking an old-age safety net, face potentially heavy burdens of care in their old age. China has been forced to suspend its “one-child policy,” a policy begun in the la
te 1970s to address China’s population explosion. The government updated the policy to exempt families with children who were killed or injured by the earthquake, and that these families would need only to obtain a certificate permitting them to have another child. Furthermore, families who lost a child in the quake are now permitted to adopt, without limitations, any of the four thousand estimated orphans whose parents were killed in the quake. The adoption of quake orphans will not affect any future births under the one-child policy, which is still in place for families not affected by the quake.

Man-Made Disasters

1975 Banqiao Dam Collapse

Rain began falling in Henan Province on 5 August 1975, the result of a typhoon that had swept in from the South China Sea. In the next three days 1,060 millimeters of rain fell. At 1 a.m. on 8 August the Banqiao Dam, located on the Ru He River, collapsed, caused in large part by the lack of excess capacity in the reservoirs of the Huai River basin to handle the additional water. Seven hundred million cubic meters of water were released, creating a wall of water 6 meters high and 12 kilometers wide, sweeping away entire villages such as the Daowencheng commune, where 9,600 people were killed. Banqiao’s sister dam, the Shimantan on the Hong He River, had collapsed a half hour earlier, its reservoir emptied of 120 million cubic meters of water in five hours. Creating a domino effect, these twin walls of water caused sixty-two other dams downstream to fail. The worst dam disaster in human history had begun.

Built in the 1950s after an episode of severe floods, the Banqiao Dam was designed to control flooding in the Huai River basin. “Harness the Huai River” became the official motto for the building program, which was intended not only to control the river and flooding but also to create a reservoir for irrigation and electrical generation. The dam was built where colliding weather systems from north-central Asia and the South China Sea meet. Along with the Shimantan Dam and a series of smaller dams, the Banqiao Dam was designed to withstand a flood the volume of which might occur once every one thousand years. The dam project would serve as the model for the Great Leap Forward campaign to create a large-scale water conservancy program, one whose primary priority was water accumulation and irrigation and whose secondary priority was drainage and flood control. Unfortunately for residents of the Huai River basin, the typhoon that swept into the area was of a magnitude expected to be experienced once every two thousand years. However, despite the confluence of remarkable weather events, the collapse of the Banqiao Dam was attributable largely to human error.

Rainfall Underestimated

The first human error occurred in rainfall prediction. Accurate rainfall prediction by Chinese meteorologists was limited by their lack of scientific knowledge. In early August the Central Meteorological Observatory in Beijing had forecast 100 millimeters of rain. In fact, the rainfall total was 1,060 millimeters. The water levels in reservoirs in the Huai River basin had been kept too high, thus providing little excess capacity to contain the greater rainfall. However, a more serious problem was the dam’s construction and the lack of support systems crucial to dealing with flooding.

Experts have concluded that the design of the dam—built (and repaired) with Soviet assistance—was to blame for its collapse. The dam’s construction did not include crucial flood-control devices, such as diversion channels and dikes. During its initial construction cracks in the dam and spillways had appeared, forcing engineers to make repairs. Chinese officials believed that the repairs had allowed for the construction of what they termed an “iron dam”: a dam that would not collapse regardless of the situation. Furthermore, the construction of the dam was hurried in order to meet official target dates. However, one of China’s senior hydrologists and dam designers, Chen Xing, warned officials of dangers to the dam. Most important, in the original design the Banqiao Dam was to include twelve sluice gates (artificial channels that allow control of the flow of water). However, a local Chinese official overruled Chen, declaring him to be “too conservative,” and lowered the number of sluice gates to five. Ultimately, Chen would be removed from the project because of his constant criticism. As the water levels behind the dam began to rise during 5–7 August, the sluice gates were opened to relieve the pressure of the additional water, but all five were partially blocked by silt and sediment buildup. The rapidly rising water levels, compounded by the inadequate functioning of the spillways, caused the level of the reservoir to exceed the capacity, or height, of the dam, resulting in a condition referred to by dam experts as “overtopping.” The results of this phenomenon are twofold: Either the structural integrity of the dam becomes compromised, or the land on either side of the dam erodes, effectively separating the dam from its earthen anchors. In the case of the Banqiao Dam collapse, the former result occurred. As the millions of cubic feet of water crashed through the dam, one of the dam workers, part of a gang of workers engaged in a futile effort to prevent the dam’s collapse, exclaimed that “the River Dragon has come!” (Qing 1998, 33).

No Warning System

The structural failure of the dam was compounded by the lack of an early warning system and comprehensive evacuation plans. One of the immediate results of the dam’s collapse was the failure of the region’s communication and transportation networks. That failure contributed to the loss of life and the inability of the relief workers, especially troops of the People’s Liberation Army, to reach survivors for nearly two weeks. The floods from the collapse of both dams and the supporting series of dams affected twenty-nine counties and municipalities. The floodwaters spread over 1 million hectares of farmland, causing more than 1 billion yuan ($525,600,000) in damage. A week after the initial disaster several smaller dams in Henan Province were dynamited to allow the floodwaters to escape farther downriver. The dead resulting from the immediate floods totaled 26,000, while an additional 145,000 died from resultant disease and famine. In all, 11–12 million people were affected by the floods. Six million buildings were destroyed. The absolute numbers may someday be revised after a more careful study of the official documents, according to Wang Yaurong, then an official with the Henan Province Department of Water Resources. The Chinese government suppressed all news of the disaster, in line with a longstanding policy not to publicize disasters because they fall under the category of state secrets. Not even external news agencies reported on the disaster; not until February 1995 did the world learn of the disaster in the Huai River basin when Human Rights Watch published news of the Banqiao Dam collapse in a report on the Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangzi River in Hubei Province.

Exactly what Chinese officials, engineers, and dam designers learned from the Banqiao Dam collapse is difficult to tell. Clearly there was the need for some form of early warning system with safer communication networks and a level of redundancy built into the system in the event of a catastrophic collapse. An academician, Li Zechuan, recommended that a database containing “meteorological, hydrological, environmental protection, forestry and agricultural departments be established to form a uniform environment monitoring network” (People’s Daily Online, 2005). An examination of the design, construction, and support systems of the Three Gorges Dam might offer clues to what was learned from the collapse of the dams. Not to be dete
rred by the dams’ failures, by 1993 China had rebuilt many of them, including the Banqiao.

2005 Jilin Chemical Plant Explosion

Nearly 300 million of China’s 1.3 billion people do not have access to clean water. Approximately 70 percent of Chinese waterways are contaminated, and 90 percent of urban water supplies are severely polluted. The safety of water supplies is even more comprised by pollution from China’s factories, especially in the chemical industry. Accidents in the chemical industry were brought into sharp focus in 2005 when an explosion occurred at the Jilin chemical plant.

On 13 November 2005, a blockage formed in a processing tower used in the manufacture of benzene at the Jilin Petrochemical Company, a subsidiary of the government-owned China National Petroleum Corporation in northeastern Jilin Province. An explosion followed, accompanied by a series of smaller explosions, and a cloud of smoke appeared over the plant. Storage tanks erupted, spilling 90 metric tons of toxic chemicals into the Songhua River. The chemicals released were primarily benzene, phenylamine, nitrobenzene, and aniline, which are used in the manufacture of plastics, detergents, pesticides, shoe and floor polishes, and paint solvents. If humans are exposed to them at unsafe levels, dizziness, drowsiness, unconsciousness, and even death can result.

The spill affected not only Chinese citizens living along the Songhua but also millions of others living along the connecting rivers, especially Russians living along the Amur River, which empties into the Sea of Okhotsk. Most immediately in danger were the residents of Harbin, China’s eighth-largest city with 3.5 million residents. Harbin is located 350 kilometers downstream from the Jilin plant and draws nearly 90 percent of its drinking water from the Songhua River. According to the Russian Far East Emergency Department, the spill endangered seventy population centers—a total of 1 million people—along the Amur. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which investigated the accident, the Jilin spill was “probably one of the largest transboundary chemical spill incidents in a river system in recent years” (United Nations Environment Programme 2006, 16).

Plant managers and local political officials initially attempted to keep the spill a secret. As they attempted to dilute the spill by releasing additional waters from a local reservoir, they waited for five days before informing officials in the neighboring province of Heilongjiang and the central government in Beijing. An anonymous source in the Jilin provincial government leaked word of the spill to the China Business News. Eight days passed before Harbin city officials received notification and shut down the city’s water supply, explaining to residents that the pipes were undergoing maintenance. Ultimately, after they had been told that a toxic spill had polluted the river, Harbin officials informed city residents that the water supply would be unavailable for four days; this represented the largest shutdown of a municipal water supply in recent Chinese history. Chinese Communist Party officials organized water trucks, decorated with banners reading “Love the people—deliver water,” to provide potable water to city residents while soldiers began to dig new wells.

Notification Delayed Again

Eleven days after the spill the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) finally notified Russian officials of the spill and of the threat posed to 600,000 Russian citizens living in Khabarovsk, which also depends on the Songhua River for drinking water, as well as the exposure to residents living along the Amur River. Tensions between the two nations rose. The mishandling and denials by business and political officials at all levels highlighted a long-standing practice of placing industry concerns above that of public health. The UNEP report on the accident criticized the Chinese government for its failure to communicate appropriate information to the public, which delayed an adequate response to the catastrophe.

The fallout was swift. Xie Zhenhua, head of SEPA, resigned 2 December 2005. His resignation marked the first time a high-ranking Chinese official was forced out of office because of an environmental disaster. Yu Li, general manager of the Jilin Petrochemical Company, was dismissed on 4 December. Wang Wei, deputy mayor of Jilin who denied that the accident had caused any environmental damage, committed suicide by hanging on 7 December. The Chinese government issued a formal apology to the Russian Federation for the accident. Six people died, and nearly seventy were injured in the immediate aftermath of the explosion.

However, a number of positive developments resulted from the Jilin accident. China and Russia established a joint monitoring program to assess the long-term repercussions from the spill. SEPA invited a team of investigators from UNEP to tour the affected areas, meet with local and national officials to discuss measures taken to address the spill and protect public health, and, according to the final UNEP report, “provide possible advice to the government of China on the environmental disaster prevention in the future” (United Nations Environment Programme 2006, 4). The report assessed the spill and the local response while providing a number of recommendations including: environmental impact studies on water, soil, and air contamination of the affected areas; a comprehensive investigation to determine causes of the spill and assess ways to prevent future disasters; a recommendation that China and Russia provide independent access to the river spill for testing; regular monitoring of water quality; upgraded policy and enforcement of regulations; and acceptance of an offer of continued support from UNEP. Missing from the UNEP report were measures to deal with public health because SEPA objected to including a public health expert on the investigation team. However, SEPA initiated unprecedented actions to investigate businesses, government officials, and individuals responsible for the spill.

Sanctions Threatened

In addition, the National Bureau of Production Safety Supervision Administration threatened all chemical plants and state-owned companies with stiff fines for environmental violations. Additionally, any officials who do not cooperate with investigations or are found to have covered up accidents will face severe punishments. China committed to spending $3.3 billion to clean up the spill as well as additional sums to upgrade municipal and wastewater treatment plants to improve water quality. Beijing also issued a directive to local officials to create emergency plans for future environmental incidents. The directive also ordered factories to improve environmental safety standards, stepped up government monitoring of environmental safety at factories along rivers, and required that all new chemical plants be built inland far from waterways and that existing plants near waterways construct holding ponds for contaminated water. Zhou Shengxian, director of SEPA, in a report to the National People’s Congress urged China to improve environmental safety or face catastrophes similar to Jilin. Zhou said China’s astounding economic growth in recent years has polluted the country’s air, water, and soil. His comments focused on the chemical industry because one-half of the 21,000 chemical plants in China are located along the Yangzi River and Huang River, which provide drinking water to millions of Chinese.

However, the new regulations have some flaws. The fines for noncompliance with environmental regulations are so low that offenders are not deterred from engaging in harmful activities (Jilin Petrochemical Company received the maximum fine of $125,000 for the 2005 spill). Local
officials are responsible for issuing permits, but their performance evaluations are still largely based on economic output, so local officials are more likely to keep plants running even if those plants are environmentally suspect. Multinational corporations in China are hiring the better environmental officials away from local companies. Encouragingly, government testing in spring 2006 indicated that water in the Songhua and Heilongjiang rivers had returned to normal levels, although the Russians indicated higher-than-normal levels of chemicals in the Amur River because the spring thaw washed contaminated water into the river. Nevertheless, Worldwatch Institute, an international independent research organization focusing on sustainability issues, concluded that since early 2006 the Chinese central government “shifted its rhetoric from a focus on economic growth at all costs to stressing a ‘harmonious society’ where considerations of development and environment coexist” (Mastney et al., 2006). The Chinese government is engaging in more than mere rhetoric. In a survey conducted in 2006 SEPA investigated 7,555 chemical plants for environmental risk; 45 percent were found to be sources of pollution, while 3,745 plants were ordered to adopt stricter pollution controls, and 49 plants were ordered to move. The problems that confront China in terms of development and environmental safety lie not in the realm of regulations (China has of some of the best environmental laws in the world) but instead lie in lax enforcement and outdated plants in the chemical industry. However, Chinese companies, along with government officials, are working to improve plant safety and adherence to environmental standards.


Disasters have been a recurring phenomenon throughout Chinese history. All Chinese, both officials and citizens, have usually mobilized to respond to the crises. The various responses, first established in the classical period, have been based on historical precedents. State responses appear never to have been the same, nor have the consequences of those actions been similar. Regardless of the form or type of disaster, the consequences have usually been accompanied by social and political change. Despite attempts by the Chinese government to keep disasters secret, the outside world has become increasingly aware of China’s disasters and ready to respond and provide assistance. In the contemporary age, the scale of disasters and the inability of the Chinese to keep such disasters from being publicized has caused the Chinese government to be more accepting of foreign aid and relief assistance. The Chinese have also reformed and upgraded their technological know-how to better meet the challenges posed by the reality of continuing catastrophes.

Natural Disasters and the Mandate of Heaven

In ancient Chinese beliefs, natural disasters were seen as a warning from Heaven that the reign of a ruler was on the verge of collapse.

An emperor’s ability to rule was said to reflect the cosmic sanction bestowed on his reign by tianming, or the “mandate of heaven,” which Chinese believed was signified by peace and harmony within his realm. Traditional political philosophers held that moral legitimacy was a vital component of tianming and that if the moral bonds between ruler and ruled were irrevocably violated, the all-embracing forces of “heaven” from which an emperor drew his “mandate” to rule as “the son of heaven” would be withheld and his dynasty would collapse. Before such a fall, it was believed that “heaven” would signal its displeasure with such portents as natural disasters and popular rebellions. “We are informed that when heaven gave life to the human race it instituted rulers to look after its members and to keep them in order,” explains the Hanshu, a first-century history of the former Han Dynasty. “When a ruler of mankind is not possessed of appropriate qualities, or when his administrative measures are not fair, heaven points out these failings by means of calamity so as to give warning of disorders.”

Source: Schell, O.. (1995). Mandate of heaven: The legacy of Tiananmen Square and the next generation of China’s leaders. New York: Touchstone, 21.

Further Reading

Bohr, P. R. (1972). Famine in China and the missionary. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Edgerton-Tarpley, K. (2004). Assigning blame: Contested heroes and villains of the North China Famine, 1876–2001. Paper delivered at the Association for Asian Studies, at San Diego, California.

Edgerton-Tarpley, K. (2005). The feminization of famine, the feminization of nationalism: famine and social activism in treaty-port Shanghai, 1876–9. Social History 30(4), 412–443.

Edgerton-Tarpley, K. (2008). Tears form iron: Cultural responses to famine in nineteenth-century China. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Harnsberger, S. (2002). The great floods of 1931 at Gaoyou. Retrieved December 3, 2008, from

Myers, R. (1985). Review of “The Great Drought Disaster in North China, 1876–1879” by Ho Hon-wai. The Journal of Asian Studies. 44: 370.

Mastny, L., Buckley, L., Turner, J., Yingling Liu, & Zijun Li. (2006, March/April). Incident at Jilin: Wake-up call or business as usual. World Watch Magazine, 19(2).

People’s Daily Online. (2005). After 30 Years, secrets, lessons of China’s worst dams burst accident surface.

Pietz, D. (2002). Engineering the State: The Huai River and Reconstruction in Nationalist China. 1927–37. New York: Routledge.

Qing Dai. (1998). The river dragon has come! New York: M. E. Sharpe.

Raghavan, C. Utilitarian free trade killed millions in China and India. Third World Network. Retrieved December 3, 2008, from

Spignesi, S. J. (2005). Catastrophe! 100 greatest disasters of all time. New York: Citadel.

United Nations Environment Programme. (2006). The Songhua River spill. China, December 2005. Field mission report. New York: United Nations.

Xien Tang. (1988). A general history of earthquake studies in China. Beijing: Science Press.

Xinhua News Agency. 30 years after Tangshan earthquake, China’s attitude toward int’l aid changes. Retrieved June 9, 2008, from

Xinhua News Agency. From Tangshan t
o Wenchuan: a fault line through modern China.
Retrieved June 17, 2008, from

Xinhua News Agency. ICBC provides $1.17b loans for quake zone. Retrieved June 17, 2008, from

Yong Chen et al. (Eds.). (1988). The great Tangshan earthquake of 1976: An anatomy of disaster. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Source: Horgan, John C. (2009). Disasters. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 617–629. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

The conservation research center for the Giant Panda was heavily damaged during the Sichuan earthquake of 2008.

Disasters (Zìrán z?ihài ????)|Zìrán z?ihài ???? (Disasters)

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