On 12 May 2008, a devastating earthquake ripped apart Wenchuan county in Sichuan province, southwest China. Military and civilian rescuers arrived swiftly at the scene, saving countless lives. Although more than 68,000 people died, the number of fatalities could have been much higher.
An indication of how much higher had been made clear on 28 July 1976, when the nondescript mining city of Tangshan in northern China was hit by an earthquake which measured 7.8 on the Richter scale and killed some 250,000 people. At the time, many Chinese regarded the disaster as a portent of great change. Already that year two major Chinese leaders, premier Zhou Enlai and senior marshal Zhu De, had died. And just two months later, on 9 September, Mao Zedong, the man who had led China for more than quarter of a century, himself went to meet his maker – Marx, of course.
James Palmer's book weaves together these two narratives of natural disaster and elite political intrigue to provide a lucid account of one of the eeriest moments in modern Chinese history. Palmer takes us inside Zhongnanhai, the party complex formerly inhabited by the emperors in the heart of Beijing, and brings to life the personalities jockeying for power as Mao lay dying of Lou Gehrig's disease. On the left, the cultural revolution group radicals were led by Mao's wife Jiang Qing, who once declared "Sex is engaging in the first rounds, but what really sustains attention in the long run is power."
The Chinese (and western) prejudice against powerful women has tended to give Jiang a uniquely demonic quality, and Palmer does well to remind readers of the role of figures such as the venal and overpromoted Wang Hongwen who whiled away the time during Mao's deathwatch by riding his motorbike and watching imported Hong Kong movies (although not simultaneously). On the right, the dying Zhou, stricken with cancer, sought to promote Deng Xiaoping, whose economic reforms he thought essential to rescue China from the inward-looking xenophobia of the cultural revolution. Yet this was not a melodrama of evil and good, or even radicalism versus reform. Even Zhou had plenty of blood on his hands, voting for all Mao's decisions to deepen the cultural revolution; in Palmer's telling phrase, he "saved more monuments than people".
Just a few hundred miles away from the chairman's deathbed, thousands of ordinary Chinese were about to meet a sudden and much more horrific end. The earthquake hit Tangshan with the force of 400 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs, and its effect was felt as far afield as Beijing. Yet the help that arrived was patchy and almost all concentrated on the city, where the economically vital industrial equipment was located, rather than the rural areas. There were many heroic tales of people rescuing each other. There were also numerous cases of rape and looting. Palmer has interviewed survivors of the earthquake, some of whom had never before had a chance to tell their stories of struggling to survive in a city whose streets were lined with corpses and where help seemed very far off. One theme emerges clearly: the state was distracted by the crisis of succession and unable to deal with a more immediate and unexpected shock.
Palmer's account is written in enviably elegant prose. The narrative never flags and its judgments are humane and nuanced. The book argues that 1976 marks a moment of transition; after Mao's death, a swift series of internal coups and arrests brought the Gang of Four low and set the stage for Deng to take power within two years of Mao's death. The concentration on human stories means, however, that some of the factors that complicate the transition between the cultural revolution and the China of Deng Xiaoping are underplayed. We tend now to think of the era since Mao's death as the emergence of China into a capitalist world (in which Beijing has become one of the most skilled players). But during the first decade of reform, immediately post-Mao, the aim of Deng and his faction was to create a more market-oriented socialism in a world where they would engage with the USSR as well as the United States. In addition, important legal and economic reforms had already begun in the early 70s, along with the opening to the US. The death of Mao was a moment when China sought to rethink the cold war, rather than escape it.
Yet the significance of this book is reflected in the fact that a book entitled "The Death of Deng" would hardly have the same impact. Mao was the last Chinese leader whose death would unleash a personalised factional battle that could end in violence. In 2011, Hong Kong news sources wrongly reported the death of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin. The moment was embarrassing but not politically relevant. Yet just four decades ago, leaders did not retire and die peacefully. Former president Liu Shaoqi died as a prisoner in agony from medical mistreatment in a basement in 1969. Mao himself hung on as chairman to the last possible moment. Deng's achievement after Mao's death was to use his own force of personality to create a regular changeover of distinctly uncharismatic leaders.
Palmer ends with a reflection on the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. There, effective rescuers arrived within hours, unlike in Tangshan. But the aftermath of 2008 has been just as murky as in 1976. Locals who have tried to investigate official corruption that might have allowed substandard construction that caused buildings to collapse have been arrested and intimidated. The artist Ai Weiwei, who has spoken out on behalf of the earthquake victims, has been subjected to a (still ongoing) cat-and-mouse strategy by the authorities. This account of the links between natural disaster and elite politics in China is a fine work of history. But its real relevance may be that it shows how much has changed in China, and yet how little, since 1976.
• Rana Mitter's Modern China: A Very Short Introduction is published by OUP.
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