An Ominous Rumbling

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These days, it's impossible to tell that Tangshan, a quiet industrial city in northeast Hebei province, was once the site of unfathomable disaster. But Li Rong, a slight, silver-haired woman sitting on a park bench in the town's center, remembers the cataclysm as if it were yesterday. It hasn't always been this way, she says, gesturing toward the neat rows of white skyscrapers that encircle the park where retirees, like herself, relax on neatly manicured lawns. We have survived the worst. Like most of Tangshan, Li was sound asleep on July 28, 1976, when an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale struck, claiming more than 240,000 lives. Local geologists knew that tremors occasionally hit Hebei, but no one expected such devastation. I woke up and everything was falling, Li recalls. I tried to move but I couldn't. In 20 seconds, nearly every building in the area had been leveled. Trapped beneath the remains of her single-story brick home, Li waited several hours before her husband and two children--returning from work on the outskirts of town--freed her from the rubble. Coal miners, sheltered underground, were the first to emerge from the wreckage. They reported an eerie silence, followed by screams and cries. Li Yulin drove an ambulance 100 km along mostly dirt roads to the front gate of the senior leaders' compound at Zhongnanhai in Beijing to report the news. His distress was so apparent that officials reportedly allowed him entry. Still, survivors had to wait for days for rescue teams to arrive. At first we couldn't speak, says Fu Yanlun, a retiree. No one even cried. But then the airplanes came, and the soldiers brought us water and ice. The year 1976 had already seen the death of beloved Premier Zhou Enlai. Mao Zedong lay sick in bed, while a fierce power struggle raged within the top ranks of the Communist Party. Tangshan's calamity was widely viewed as an omen that Mao's days were numbered. The Chairman died just six weeks later. China's left-wing leaders seized on the disaster as an opportunity to show their strength. They refused offers of aid from international organizations and launched a campaign entitled Resist the Earthquake, Rescue Ourselves. Doctors and soldiers were sent in from all over the country. Injured residents were evacuated, often to distant hospitals, while provincial governments sheltered thousands of orphaned children. Temporary shanties sprang up throughout the devastated city and beyond. An infant born on the day of the disaster was famously named Xiedang: Thank you, party. Tangshan is now heralded as a model of Chinese resourcefulness and rebirth. Its population, which was cut down by a third, now is larger than it had been in 1976, and its glass and concrete factories have increased their production. Anniversaries of the disaster arrive with a flurry of propaganda designed to allay fears of a recurrence. An earthquake is like a vaccination, assured the head of the Tangshan Earthquake Bureau, quoted by a newspaper in 1995, as locals worried over rumors of Deng Xiaoping's imminent death. Once you have one, there's no need to worry about another. Li Rong, for one, isn't sure. We still have earthquakes, she says, noting the tremors that occasionally startle her at night. No one knew then. How could they know now?