The People’s Liberation Army and the Wenchuan Quake

The New York Times has a great “memo from Beijing” — “Quake Revealed Deficiencies of China’s Military’s” that does a great job at outlining the good intentions of the Chinese government, combined with the poor performance of the military itslef. Everyone’s heart was in the right place…

Some Western analysts say that Beijing’s willingness to accept aid and rescue teams from several foreign militaries reflects a new openness in a military that has historically operated behind a heavy cloak of secrecy. The military’s top commanders held news briefings in Beijing to discuss the work of the troops in the quake’s aftermath, and many analysts said they thought it was the military’s first such event.

Beijing asked the Pentagon’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which operates spy satellites, for high-resolution images of regions affected by the earthquake. China also used 15 of its own satellites to gather information, according to Eric Hagt, director of the China program for the World Security Institute in Washington. It may have asked for satellite images expressly to demonstrate its willingness to work with the international community, Mr. Hagt said.

It all stands in sharp contrast to the military’s performance after the last major earthquake, in Tangshan in 1976, when it refused all foreign aid in an effort to keep the scale of the disaster secret.

… though performance was often suboptimal. When I was in China, CCTV constantly showed video of paratroopers jumping to the scene. Apparently, those were the only paratroops who got through:

Shen Dingli, a leading security expert at Fudan University in Shanghai, said the military’s response did not reflect well on the military’s preparedness for a potential war with, say, Taiwan, the independently governed island that China claims as its sovereign territory. China’s air force deployed 6,500 paratroopers to Sichuan, but only 15 ended up dropping into the disaster zone, military officials said, because of bad weather and forbidding mountain terrain. Mr. Shen called the effort too little and too late.

“The air force should have been able to get troops into Wenchuan in two hours,” he said, referring to a county near the quake’s epicenter. “It took 44 hours. If it took them 10 hours, that’s understandable. But 44 hours is shameful.”

Like the American response to 9/11, the Chinese response to the Wenchuan Earthquake revealed both what the country does right and wrong. Now for that information to be used positively by improving China’s ability to respond to disaster… and save lives

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *