This week’s earthquake in southwestern China killed at least 65 people and sparked outrage over orders for residents to remain in coronavirus lockdown rather than flee to safety.
The 6.8-magnitude earthquake is the latest setback for Sichuan province, which has already faced floods, drought, power outages, and onerous pandemic controls this year. The quake, whose epicenter was in rural Luding county, has also sparked criticism about authorities’ continued preference for coronavirus prevention over other emergencies.
On Monday, a screenshot of a chat group was widely shared on social media, in which residents in Chengdu were told by their building manager to stay in their apartments during the earthquake.
The screenshot and other similar reports sparked widespread public outrage, garnering coverage in state media. According to the official People’s Daily newspaper’s health news platform, one of its reporters spoke with the building manager involved in the Chengdu incident, who stated, “Regardless of how severe the earthquake is, it can’t be that severe.” It is safer to remain at home.”
A person claiming to be that building manager later posted online, saying the earthquake was already over when he or she told residents not to run, and it was all a joke.
Chengdu’s health commission responded to the controversy Monday night, saying that in the event of an earthquake, fire, or flood, people’s lives and safety should take precedence over pandemic rules.
The majority of the deaths occurred in the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, a region of Sichuan province that includes Luding county and has a Tibetan majority. Small towns suffered the most damage, with buildings leveled and roads rendered impassable by rubble.
State Grid’s local branch reported that it had restored power to 20,000 households overnight. Several hundred people were still stuck on an expressway Tuesday morning.
In one video from Chengdu, residents gathered at the gate of their apartment complex, arguing to be let out. Employees on the other side of the door refused to open it, with one yelling over the speakerphone that the buildings had not collapsed. In another video, a man shakes the handle of a locked door while attempting to leave his apartment building with other residents.
Earthquakes are common in China’s southwest. A powerful earthquake struck Sichuan province in 2008, killing tens of thousands. Residents in the affected areas complained about an inadequate official response in the aftermath.
Since the early days of the pandemic, when residents of Wuhan were confined to their homes for more than two months, there have been safety concerns about China’s inflexible coronavirus lockdowns. Videos of Wuhan pandemic staffers welding shut doors in apartment buildings circulated, raising concerns about what might happen in the event of a fire or other emergency.
In recent months, Chinese officials have sought to relax some pandemic restrictions at the national level, as the economy shows signs of distress. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has begun appearing in photo ops without a mask, meeting with local officials and the public as a symbol of normalcy. The state media has encouraged families to take summer vacations.
However, following a surge in cases, Beijing imposed new controls, with tens of millions of people across the country currently under lockdown. Last weekend, the majority of residents in Shenzhen, China’s southern high-tech capital, were ordered to remain at home. Parts of Guangzhou, the Tibetan regional capital Lhasa, and the southwestern city Guizhou are still under lockdown.
Chengdu went into lockdown on Thursday evening, telling residents to stay at home until Sunday, with only one member of each household allowed to go out to buy groceries each day. Authorities said Monday that the lockdown would last at least until Wednesday, as new cases emerged.
Officials across the country have been on edge ahead of a crucial Chinese Communist Party congress next month, where leader Xi Jinping is expected to defy precedent by serving a third five-year term. Pandemic restrictions, as well as other social controls in general, are expected to remain in place until after the meeting. Xi has declared the nation will continue its “zero covid” policy to control all outbreaks with lockdowns for the foreseeable future.