The massive quake that shook China's Sichuan province this week is one of the worst natural disasters – in terms of lives claimed and property destroyed – that the world has seen in some time. But an earthquake, according to Chinese tradition, is not a mere act of nature, nor is it simply a matter of fate. Traditionally, every earthquake announces profound changes that will affect the entire society.
The Chinese still remember – as do I, having been in Beijing at the time – that the great Tangshan quake of 1976, which killed more than 240,000, came just before the death of Mao Zedong. It would have been difficult for the Chinese of that era not to link the two events, according to the long-held belief that natural catastrophes always foreshadow the death of the reigning emperor.
Some 40 years later, the Communist Party has succeeded in reducing most religious institutions to dust, wiping out the Buddhist monasteries and the Taoist clergy. Yet popular beliefs remain intact, perhaps even more solid than ever – a last rampart of individual thought against the official totalitarian ideology.
It is too early to foresee how the victims of Sichuan and the Chinese people will interpret this catastrophe. But the rapid and apparently effective response of public relief agencies to the victims, a response prominently reported on the official media, is significant. The party means to prove that it hears the people, which has rarely been the case in the past, and that it understands it must react with modern efficiency to natural catastrophes.
Both the relief efforts and the government's presentation of these efforts – the mobilization of the media as well as that of the military – are, without a doubt, intended to save lives. They also aim to tear the Chinese away from their superstition. From the standpoint of the Communist Party, it is essential to demonstrate that the party is humanist and rational, and that the earthquake foretells neither the death of the emperor nor a change of regime.
This enormous effort at material aid and psychological persuasion is all the more essential since the Olympic Games are approaching. These Games were organized to demonstrate to the Chinese people and the world that China has indeed entered the era of efficiency and rationality. What is at stake in Sichuan, beyond the victims, are the Olympic Games and the change in cultural paradigms that the Games are supposed to embody.
Perhaps the Communist Party will succeed in persuading the population, or at least the literate part of the population, that a natural catastrophe is not supernatural, and that the party is indeed on the side of the people since it comes to their aid. But once the supernatural is driven out, political realism takes its place.
Numerous on-site reports make it clear that the quake victims are for the most part migrant workers. That is, they are people from the countryside who had taken to the road to find jobs in workshops or small industrial plants, finding makeshift lodgings in uninhabitable and heretofore uninhabited regions. These deaths are not to be explained by supernatural causes, but by the political exploitation of impoverished peasants who have been despised and neglected by the Communist Party.
Journalists on location, as well as survivors, likewise observe that the buildings first to crumble, and that killed the most victims, were public edifices – schools and hospitals. Everyone in China knows that a common form of corruption in the ranks of the Communist Party consists in economizing on materials and construction standards.
Children crushed by the walls of their school are victims of the corruption of builders, businesses and government officials as much as they are victims of the earthquake. This the people know, and all the gesticulations of aid agencies and national leaders will not be able to eradicate this source of collective hatred of the people towards the party.
So it is with China and with tyrannical regimes: The party is convinced it controls everything. But it is often unexpected events that reveal fault lines in the system, the hypocrisy of public discourse, and the most unbearable injustices. Even as the people of Sichuan attempt to recover from this deadly quake, we learn that scores of children have died from an epidemic of hand, foot and mouth disease that has sickened tens of thousands. All of this reminds us of the panics of recent years provoked by the SARS virus, avian flu and the AIDS epidemic.
Epidemics and natural catastrophes (or not-so-natural catastrophes, if the Three Gorges Dam should also crumble) are more serious threats to the Communist tyranny than democratic pamphlets disseminated on Web sites. The party has resolved to imprison dissidents. But in the face of viruses, popular beliefs and earthquakes, the party stands naked.
Mr. Sorman is author of "Empire of Lies: The Truth About China in the 21st Century," published last month by Encounter.