Despite mounting tension between Beijing and Taipei over the island's status, President Jiang Zemin immediately offered aid and condolences to the victims, and China's Red Cross began allocating funds and relief supplies for the island. The quake "hurt the hearts of people on the mainland as the Chinese people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are as closely linked as flesh and blood," China's official news agency quoted Jiang as saying. But assistance from Beijing may turn out to be a political hot potato, because unlike Greece and Turkey, which have recently managed to overcome some the traditional hostility between them by helping each other through traumatic earthquakes, the heart of the Beijing-Taipei dispute is whether Taiwan is for all intents and purposes a separate state (as Taipei maintains) or simply a rebel province (as Beijing insists). The Taiwanese, for example, aren't all convinced that they're actually linked "as flesh and blood" to the mainland Chinese, with many nationalist elements maintaining that their differences are ethnic as much as political. So if emergency aid sent across the Taiwan Strait is given different meanings in each capital, that could bedevil any warming of relations through earthquake relief.
Taiwan had prepared its defenses to face an enemy from across the sea; instead, a different enemy struck from underground: A devastating earthquake struck the island early Tuesday, killing at least 1,700 people — although the death toll is rising by the hour — and reminded both Taiwan and Beijing of forces far more powerful than the enmity that divides them. The second worst quake to hit the island this century measured 7.6 on the Richter scale — the recent disastrous tremor in Turkey was 7.4 — and struck hardest in the central Nantou and Taichung counties, although a hotel and other buildings were destroyed in the capital, Taipei.