Friday October 18, 2019


July 26, 2013

On July 22, an earthquake hit China’s Gansu province, killing over 95 people and injuring over one thousand. The earthquake, which hit at 7:45 local time, measured 6.6 on the Richter scale, and was followed by numerous aftershocks, including one 5.6 magnitude quake. The quake, which hit close to the city of Dingxi in southern Gansu, caused massive destruction in the area, with official estimates of 2,000 homes destroyed and another 21,000 severely damaged.

The Chinese government acted quickly in response to the quake, sending military and paramilitary officers to the affected area to search for survivors and help arrange temporary shelters for the displaced. However, as with many earthquakes in western China, relief efforts were complicated by transportation issues, including roads damaged by the earthquake and subsequent landslides.

China is no stranger to earthquakes. Since the famous Wenchuan earthquake in May 2008, China has experienced 24 earthquakes measuring over 6.0 on the Richter scale. Many of these quakes have taken place in western or southwestern China, where population density is lower but remote locations and poor transportation complicate transportation of both rescue personnel and material goods such as food, water, and temporary shelters.

In these rural and often poor areas, damage from earthquakes is exacerbated by shoddy construction. In Gansu, for example, many of the damaged homes and building were simple adobe brick constructions. Such buildings stand little chance of surviving a major quake, much less the numerous aftershocks and landslides that followed the July 24 earthquake. By contrast, many of the buildings in the more urban area of Dingxi city avoided serious damage.

The earthquake and its disproportionate impact on rural residents highlighted a topic of much recent discussion in China—the role of urbanization in raising living conditions. New Premier Li Keqiang has made urbanization a key part of his plan for shaping a more consumer-based economy in China. Urbanization, the theory goes, would create more middle-class consumers in China by raising the living standards of China’s rural citizens. Currently, many rural residents do not have access to social security, health insurance, and a quality education. Collecting villagers together in cities would provide more access to these services. Urbanization is also one tool the government plans to use to lessen the wealth gap between China’s developed eastern provinces and the poorer, more rural west.

After the Lushan (or Ya’an) earthquake in April 2013, it was suggested that the Chinese government should use the disaster to drive forward urbanization efforts. The necessity of rebuilding could lead to a new model for urbanization, with better construction standards and higher living conditions for the formerly rural families. The Chinese government might use a similar strategy when the time comes to rebuild Dingxi city and the surrounding areas.

In the case of Gansu, urbanization would likely be tied to disaster prevention. The process would involve moving farmers from the remote, hard-to-reach areas where the earthquake had the most devastating effects. This sort of urbanization, aside from its economic benefits for China, would in theory lessen the damage from earthquakes by ensuring higher quality construction. Urbanization would also make it easier for relief and rescue efforts to reach residents. Taking this logic one step further, some commentators have suggested that the Chinese government should attempt to use urbanization as an excuse to move people out of certain high-risk areas. The area where the Gansu earthquake hit was a known geographic fault line, as are certain areas of Sichuan province (including the site of the Wenchuan earthquake). Urbanization efforts could line up nicely with current calls to take preventative measures against natural disasters in China’s western regions.

In practice, however, there are already criticisms of China’s new urbanization strategy. Often, urbanization involves the semi-mandatory relocation of rural farmers into cities, where many have trouble finding work and resent the increased living costs that come with a larger city. And while urban residents generally do have a higher standard of living than their rural counterparts, even China’s largest cities also face complaints of shoddy construction and sub-standard building materials. Some of the victims of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, who were relocated to a new city, have complained of suspect construction in the new buildings. Given these concerns, it is unclear whether the relocated residents would fare any better now if an earthquake was to hit today.

Challenges remain, but disaster-stricken areas like Dingxi in Gansu need the benefits of urbanization more than any other area.


For more information on the Gansu earthquake, please see the following news sources:

The Atlantic“Why Earthquakes in China Are So Damaging”

BBC “China’s Gansu province hit by powerful earthquakes”

Christian Science Monitor “Rescue efforts put to test as death toll rises in China earthquake”

Wall Street Journal “Death Toll in Monday’s China Earthquake Hits 94, With 1,001 Injured”


For Chinese language coverage of the Gansu earthquake, please see the following sources:

Sina Finance (新浪财经)“专家:西部地区地震多发 农民无抗震标准须改变”

Xinhua (新华) “甘肃定西发生6.6级地震”

Xinhua (新华) “中国地震台网专家解读:甘肃6.6级地震为何伤亡严重”


For information on China’s urbanization reforms, please see the following sources:“Li Keqiang expounds on urbanization”

The China Story“The Territorial City”

Huanqiu (环球)“雅安地震影响经济几何 重建江走新型城镇化模式”

New York Times“Pitfalls Abound in China’s Push From Farm to City”

Phoenix (凤凰) “李克强谈新型城镇化思路:核心是人的城镇化”

Sohu  (搜狐) “以新型城镇化引导灾区民众远离灾难”

Sohu (搜狐)“李克强再度定调城镇化18股面临重大机遇”

Wall Street Journal “China’s Plans for Faster Urbanization: Show Me the Numbers”

Compiled and edited by Shannon Tiezzi and Yichi Zhang.