International Security Studies

China's Earthquake: Firsthand Observations from a Wilson Center Director

Point of View by Rob Litwak, director, International Security Studies Centerpoint, summer issue

Jul 02, 2008

On May 12, at 2:28 p.m., a 7.9 magnitude earthquake occurred in China that literally shook the entire country and was felt throughout 80 percent of Asia. At that moment, my wife Liz and I were visiting the Panda Reserve Center in Wolong, six miles from its epicenter, as part of a World Wildlife Fund tour.

In a series of jolts that lasted around three minutes, boulders, trees, and dirt came tumbling down from the 1,500-foot mountain towering over this zoo-like facility where, for 20 years, the Chinese have run a captive breeding program to increase the number of this threatened species. The avalanches came from several directions with the nearest landing about 20 yards from us.

The center's staff worked out an evacuation route to safer ground for the three dozen visiting tourists and then courageously went back into the wreckage to rescue their national treasure. Young handlers carried 13 panda cubs to safety outside the reserve.

Several hours later, in the pouring rain, our bus slowly navigated the rock-strewn road up to the village of Wolong. The hotel there, along with all other dwellings, was uninhabitable so we slept in our bus in the hotel parking lot. We learned by car radio that the road from Wolong back to the Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu had been destroyed and we were stranded.

The hotel staff and local people could not have been more hospitable. Three days after the quake, when the skies finally cleared, military helicopters landed to evacuate all of the foreigners. Although we had been rescued, the 45-minute ride to Chengdu was bittersweet. We flew over scenes of indescribable destruction and suffering.

From the moment my wife and I arrived at Beijing's spectacular new airport in early May, the pride of the Chinese people as they prepared to host the Summer Olympics was evident. In the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake, we witnessed an even more impressive face of China. Experts are now debating the potential long-term impact of this tragedy on Chinese society. Ross Terrill of Harvard's Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, who spent this spring at the Wilson Center as a public policy scholar and was in Beijing on the day of the quake, wrote in the Weekly Standard: "In the midst of grief, the balance between state and society may have tipped a few degrees further toward society."

Experts & Staff

  • Robert S. Litwak // Vice President for Scholars and Academic Relations and Director, International Security Studies
  • Tonya Boyce // Program Assistant, International Security Studies