Sometimes An Earthquake Is Just an Earthquake

Almost a month after the devastating earthquake hit Yushu, Qinghai, Foreign Policy notes that the ethnic tensions between the area’s Tibetan residents and the Han Chinese have so far remained under the surface:

Nearly one month after a magnitude 7.1 earthquake hit this isolated stretch of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau in western China, search-and-rescue efforts have ceased, and a state-led reconstruction effort is under way. The government aims to clear debris within weeks and rebuild within three years. The propaganda push is equally ambitious: “There will be new schools! There will be new homes!” President Hu Jintao wrote on the blackboard during a visit to a makeshift tent school. “We can overcome the disaster and improve national unity,” Wen told survivors on his second visit, adding, “No matter whether you are Tibetans or Hans, you are all in one family.”

And there, of course, is the rub.

The earthquake that rattled Qinghai laid bare a politically inconvenient truth: Despite an aggressive campaign to “modernize” China’s western reaches, life on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau is tough — and decidedly Tibetan. The first, grainy images from the scene — rawboned herders and monks digging through muddy rubble by hand — do not square with China’s portrait of the region. In China, Tibet means politics, not people. Aside from oblique references to the “Dalai clique,” state media focuses on economic development (“China builds sheds, fodder bases for herdsmen on Qinghai-Tibet Plateau”) or flashes pictures of delegates in flashy ethnic dress. Yushu doesn’t fit that script — hence Hu and Wen’s rather forceful insistence that all’s well.

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