Why Earthquakes in China Are So Damaging

In the aftermath of another major tremor, lax enforcement of building codes remains a serious problem in the country.


An injured woman receives treatment at a hospital after a 6.6 magnitude earthquake hit Minxian county, Dingxi, Gansu province July 23, 2013. (Reuters)

China's unfortunate streak of major earthquakes has continued. On Monday, a tremor measuring 6.6 on the Richter scale struck near the city of Dingxi, a mid-sized city (by Chinese standards -- it still has 2.7 million people) in impoverished Gansu Province. As of this writing, 94 people have lost their lives in the quake, and more than 1,000 are injured. The quake has affected over 120,000 people and will undoubtedly cost millions of dollars in reconstruction fees.

Devastating earthquakes are a global phenomenon, as anyone in Indonesia, Haiti, or Japan can tell you. But China has experienced more than its fair share of earthquake tragedy; according to this list of the world's 10 deadliest earthquakes, the two highest-casualty ones of all time -- and three overall -- happened in China. Given the immutable laws of plate tectonics, the chances that an earthquake will again inflict China in the near future is high. What, then, are the reasons for China's high number of fatalities -- and, more importantly, what does the government have to do to minimize this number in the future?

The first reason has to with some simple, irreversible facts: China has a lot of people -- and a lot of earthquakes.  But in addition to being the most populous country in the world, China also is extremely dense -- at least 90 percent of the country's 1.3 billion people live in the eastern half of the country, and the coastal provinces are especially crowded.

Wikimedia Commons

Fortunately for China, the area of most seismic activity overlaps with a less populous part of the country: the southwest. This map plots Asian earthquakes, by magnitude, since 1964, and shows a concentration of mega-quakes in Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu, Qinghai, Tibet, and Xinjiang: none ranking among China's most crowded provinces.

California Institute of Technology

The flip side, however, is this: The areas of heightened seismic activity also overlap with remote, mountainous parts of China, where poor transportation infrastructure makes recovery efforts difficult. For this challenge, at least, China is well-equipped: According to Kit Miyamoto, the president and CEO of the earthquake research firm Miyamoto International, China's dispatch of almost 100,000 well-organized soldiers to Beichuan within hours of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake was "highly impressive given the challenging conditions." Beijing received considerable praise for its recovery effort, especially in respect to how badly the government botched a quake that struck the city of Tangshan in 1976, a calamity that killed a quarter of a million people while China refused offers for assistance.

Yet for China's skill in implementing rescue and recovery operations, its record in pre-empting excess casualties is more problematic.

Much of the infrastructure damage in earthquakes is simply unavoidable, and in hilly areas landslides cause tremendous loss of life long after the earth stops shaking. But in China, the prevalence of low-quality buildings -- many constructed in violation of building codes -- has exacerbated the damage and caused a political headache in Beijing.  Following the 2008 Sichuan quake, relatives of the victims wondered aloud why the town's schools had collapsed while the sturdier government buildings remained standing. The uproar -- soon squelched by the government -- touched upon a number of broader controversies in China: government privilege, official corruption, and the yawning gap between rich and poor.

Prior to the onset of economic reforms, the quality of Chinese construction was poor; as in many rural, developing countries, most structures were made from adobe or watered-down concrete and thus were ill-equipped to survive earthquakes. But in the years since, China's improvement in this regard has been striking: major cities boast modern, steel high-rises, and a far higher percentage of the population lives in earthquake-proof structures. Building codes in China are well-defined and up to international standard.

Enforcement of these codes, though, is a problem. As Miyamoto told me, "You need more than just good building codes. You also need good engineers to implement the code, and good contractors to implement the engineers' vision." And along the way, a lot can go wrong: Contractors feel pressure to complete projects ahead of schedule and cut corners. Builders substitute cheap materials in order to cut costs. And then, you have the omnipresent specter of bribery and corruption.

As a result, for a country whose defining structure is an enormous ancient wall, modern Chinese structures have an surprisingly short half-life. New buildings in the country are expected to stand for 25 to 30 years -- a far cry from the U.S. expectation of 70 to 75 years. This difference is partly explained through economics -- China's binge in fixed-asset investment encourages major construction projects, least of all to keep workers employed, and one by-product of all this construction is a huge raise in living standards. But from an earthquake prevention standpoint, the new buildings remain worrisome.

After the 2008 quake devastated the town of Beichuan, local authorities resettled approximately 40,000 people into a new city called Yongchang located 10 or so miles from the epicenter. The new town is clean and picturesque and is, at first glance, a worthy tribute to the victims of the earthquake. But, as this piece by NPR's Louisa Lim describes, there's trouble in paradise: Cracks have appeared in the brand new homes, and a local official has been detained for accepting bribes. Residents have complained of corruption, and when one man attempted to organize them, he was arrested and thrown in jail.

The subject of earthquake damage prevention symbolizes one of the central challenges of contemporary Chinese governance. At the federal level, China has good building codes, the willingness to invest in safe housing, and the means to respond quickly and effectively when tragedy strikes. But at the local level, where the country's population actually interacts with its government, difficulties with corruption and law enforcement mean that subsequent earthquakes will be more tragic than necessary.