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The Great Tangshan Earthquake of 1976

The Natural Disaster That Ended the Cultural Revolution


Ruins from Great Tangshan Earthquake

Destruction in Tangshan, China, 1976

Photo by Hebei Provincial Seismological Bureau via U.S. Geological Survey.
Bridge destroyed by Great Tangshan Earthquake

Chengli Bridge in Tangshan, China, damaged by 7.8 earthquake

Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey
Destruction caused by Great Tangshan Earthquake

Damage at Tangshan Rolling Stock Company, 1976

Photo by R.E. Wallace, U.S. Geological Survey

The magnitude 7.8 earthquake that struck Tangshan, China on July 28, 1976 killed at least 242,000 people (the official death count). Some observers place the actual toll as high as 700,000.

The Great Tangshan Earthquake also rocked the seat of Chinese Communist Party power in Beijing - both literally and politically.

Background to the Tragedy - Politics and the Gang of Four in 1976:

China was in a state of political ferment in 1976. The Party Chairman, Mao Zedong, was 82 years old. He spent much of that year in the hospital, suffering several heart attacks and other complications of old age and heavy smoking.

Meanwhile, the Chinese public and the western-educated Premier, Zhou Enlai, had grown weary of the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Zhou went so far as to publicly oppose some of the measures ordered by Chairman Mao and his coterie, pushing for "The Four Modernizations" in 1975.

These reforms stood in marked contrast to the Cultural Revolution's emphasis on a "return to the soil"; Zhou wanted to modernize China's agriculture, industry, sciences, and national defense. His calls for modernization incurred the wrath of the powerful "Gang of Four," a cabal of Maoist hardliners headed by Madam Mao (Jiang Qing).

Zhou Enlai died on January 8, 1976, just six months before the Tangshan Earthquake. His death was mourned widely by the Chinese people, despite the fact that the Gang of Four had ordered that public grief for Zhou should be down-played. Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of defiant mourners flooded into Tiananmen Square in Beijing to express their sorrow over Zhou's death. This was the first mass demonstration in China since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, and a sure sign of the people's rising anger against the central government.

Zhou was replaced as premiere by the unknown Hua Guofeng. Zhou's successor as the standard-bearer for modernization within the Chinese Communist Party, however, was Deng Xiaoping.

The Gang of Four rushed to denounce Deng, who had called for reforms to raise the living standards of average Chinese, allow more freedoms of expression and movement, and end the rampant political persecution that was practiced at that time. Mao fired Deng in April of 1976; he was arrested, and held incommunicado. Nevertheless, Jiang Qing and her cronies kept up a steady drumbeat of condemnation for Deng throughout the spring and early summer.

The Ground Shifts Beneath Them:

At 3:42 am on July 28, 1976, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Tangshan, an industrial city of 1 million people in northern China. The quake leveled about 85% of the buildings in Tangshan, which had been built on the unstable soil of the Luanhe River's flood plain. This alluvial soil liquefied during the quake, undermining entire neighborhoods.

Structures in Beijing also sustained damage, some 87 miles (140 kilometers) distant. People as far away as Xian, 470 miles (756 kilometers) from Tangshan, felt the tremors.

Hundreds of thousands of people lay dead after the quake, and many more were trapped in the rubble. Coal miners working deep underground in the region perished when the mines collapsed around them.

A series of aftershocks, the most powerful registering 7.1 on the Richter Scale, added to the destruction. All of the roads and rail-lines leading into the city were destroyed by the quake.

Beijing's Internal Response:

At the time the earthquake struck, Mao Zedong lay dying in the hospital in Beijing. As tremors rippled through the capital, hospital officials rushed to push Mao's bed to safety.

The central government, headed by the new premiere, Hua Guofeng, initially knew little of the disaster. According to an article in the New York Times, coal miner Li Yulin was the first to bring word of the devastation to Beijing. Dirty and exhausted, Li drove an ambulance for six hours, going right up to the party leaders' compound to report that Tangshan had been destroyed. However, it would be days before the government organized the first relief operations.

In the meantime, the surviving people of Tangshan desperately dug through the rubble of their homes by hand, stacking the corpses of their loved ones in the streets. Government planes flew overhead, spraying disinfectant over the ruins in an effort to prevent an epidemic of disease.

Several days after the earthquake, the first People's Liberation Army troops reached the devastated area to aid in rescue and recovery efforts. Even when they finally arrived at the scene, the PLA lacked trucks, cranes, medicines, and other necessary equipment. Many of the soldiers were forced to march or run for miles to the site due to the lack of passable roads and rail-lines. Once there, they too were forced to dig through the rubble with their bare hands, lacking even the most basic tools.

Premiere Hua made the career-saving decision to visit the affected area on August 4, where he expressed his sorrow and condolences to the survivors. According to London University professor Jung Chang's autobiography, this behavior contrasted starkly with that of the Gang of Four.

Jiang Qing and the other members of the Gang went on the air to remind the nation that they shouldn't allow the earthquake to distract them from their first priority: to "denounce Deng." Jiang also publicly stated that "There were merely several hundred thousand deaths. So what? Denouncing Deng Xiaoping concerns eight hundred million people."

Beijing's International Response:


Although the state-run media took the unusual step of announcing the catastrophe to China's citizens, the government remained mum about the earthquake internationally. Of course, other governments around the world were aware that a significant earthquake had taken place based on seismograph readings. However, the extent of the damage and number of casualties was not revealed until 1979, when state-run Xinhua media released the information to the world.

At the time of the quake, the paranoid and insular leadership of the People's Republic refused all offers of international aid, even from such neutral bodies as the United Nations aid agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Instead, the Chinese government urged its citizens to "Resist the Earthquake and Rescue Ourselves."

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