October 1, 1999

Taiwan's Great Earthquake and the Mandate of Heaven


The Chinese word for crisis is comprised of two characters: wei and ji, meaning danger and opportunity. In other words the Chinese concept of crisis is "an opportunity fraught with danger" or a "dangerous opportunity." This intriguing bit of etymology has been cited so often and so indiscriminately it is now a cliché.

Crises bring out both the best and the worst in human beings. During life and death crises, peoples' "personas," the masks they wear during everyday life, fall away and their true faces are exposed for all the world to see.

Hollywood screenwriters understand this. Extraordinary crises which force character revelation are the basis for countless paint by the numbers disaster movies, from "Airport" to "Earthquake," all debased variants of the only classic of the genre, "The High and the Mighty," a 1950's John Wayne star vehicle.

Taiwan's "9-21 Great Earthquake," the worst the island has experienced in a century (2100 dead, 9000 injured) has turned out to be a real life Irwin Allen disaster movie, in which countless "common" people displayed uncommon grace under pressure.


Taiwan's crisis brought out the best in millions of compassionate strangers from all over the world, who provided expert rescue teams and generous disaster relief. Taiwan's crisis brought out the best in millions of Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, who out of concern for relatives and loved ones jammed phone lines between the island and the mainland.

Bevin Chu is an American architect of Chinese descent registered to practice in Texas. Currently living and working in Taiwan, Chu is the son of a retired high-ranking diplomat with the ROC (Taiwan) government. His column, "The Strait Scoop," now appears Fridays at Antiwar.com.

Archived Columns

Taiwan's Great Earthquake and the Mandate of Heaven

Taiwan's Little Emperors

Globocops With Guillotines

Taiwan Independence and the Stockholm Syndrome

Taiwan Independence and Free Lunches (8/31/99)

Inside the Taiwan Political Scene (8/19/99)

American Values in Dire Straits (8/10/99)

Mainland Chinese rescue teams, seasoned experts with valuable experience earned at enormous human cost during the 8.3 magnitude Tangshan quake of 1976, were made available to the ROC within hours of the initial shockwaves, and kept available for the duration of the crisis.

On Taiwan, the three million strong "Buddhist Compassion Relief" Tzu Chi Association, without any prompting or media fanfare, swiftly mobilized, dispatching well-organized and highly disciplined teams of Buddhist nuns with emergency supplies of drinking water and rations to hard hit disaster sites. TV news crews eager to capture human interest footage of them in action were asked politely to refrain, as their presence impeded their rescue efforts to the detriment of the victims.

Buddhist nuns weren't the only organization to operate with military precision. The ROC Army Corp of Engineers also earned the respect and gratitude of countless quake victims.

New Party Chairman Lee Ching-hua and concerned New Party officials chartered a helicopter on their own initiative, loaded it up with emergency medical supplies and flew them to a remote fogged-in mountain disaster site. They distributed the supplies and evacuated a full load of injured quake victims. New Party Legislator Fung Ting-kuo, whose district surrounds the epicenter, went days without sleep, working around the clock addressing one emergency after another.

Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou confirmed Taipei voters' wisdom by exercising considerable wisdom of his own. The father of two sons saved after being buried under 12 stories of rubble for 130 hours thanked Ma for his solid judgment. Ma ordered the site sprayed with water so that anyone trapped beneath could drink and not die from dehydration before they could be reached by rescue crews.


Sadly, like an Irwin Allen disaster movie, Taiwan's crisis also revealed the ineptitude of the political hacks who comprise Lee Teng-hui's separatist KMT mainstream faction. We will probably never learn how many unnecessary deaths their lethal combination of incompetence and indifference inflicted on the people of Taiwan.

Rescue experts inform us that the first 72 hours following a disaster, either natural or man-made, are the most critical. Victims not reached during this window of opportunity usually don't survive.

Rescue experts who rushed to Taiwan from halfway around the world, anxious to swing into action saving lives, were left cooling their heels by clueless KMT bureaucrats, even as quake victims remained trapped under mountains of rubble. Rescue teams from Britain, Spain and Mexico confided their frustration with the Lee Teng-hui administration's mind-boggling incompetence. A United Daily News article entitled "Who's in Charge?" quoted incredulous international rescue workers who swore "never in their lives had they witnessed such a chaotic command system."

New Party Legislator Hsieh Chi-Ta, cited for outstanding public service by Taiwan's Press Association, invoked the picturesque metaphor of dinosaurs. One could smack these lumbering giants on the tail yet run away before their tiny brains reacted to the pain. Whether this is paleontologically accurate is beside the point. It was an apt metaphor for the ruling KMT's torpor in Taiwan's hour of need.

What was President Lee Teng-hui doing during this critical 72 hours? Lee, Vice-president Lien Chan, and Premier Vincent Siew spent the first 48 hours "visually inspecting" disaster sites by helicopter. Lee requisitioned one Sikorsky Seahawk for himself plus three more for his retinue of personal bodyguards and presidential office staffers. This four helo squadron arrived at each disaster site empty-handed. No food. No medicine. No rescue equipment.

When asked by quake victims at successive disaster sites what Lee intended to do to help, Lee informed them he would "first complete his 'visual inspections,' then study the matter in greater detail, and finally set up an emergency rescue center." Seventy-two hours later, having completed his checklist, Lee Teng-hui was ready to deal with the emergency.

What were KMT party hacks doing about the earthquake?

Restoring downed telecommunications links in order to determine which areas suffered what sort of damage and what type of assistance they would need? Clearing blocked roadways so rescue personnel and equipment could get through? Coordinating domestic and foreign rescue efforts to avoid wasteful duplication of manpower and materiel?

The answer is none of the above.

KMT party hacks were holding marathon debates about compensation for quake victims. How much for each person killed, how much for each person injured, how much for each person maimed. Rather than trying to save the living, they were busy figuring out how to mollify surviving family members by buying them off with public monies.

Alarmed by a rising tide of public anger, KMT party hacks started showing up at disaster sites accompanied by TV news crews. Not only did these callous opportunists fail to provide timely and appropriate disaster assistance, their "celebrity" appearances at quake sites for transparently self-serving motives got in the way of private efforts initiated once the public realized the government was out to lunch.

One quake victim summed up public cynicism when he told reporters "We want nothing, except food, water, and coffins. Big Shots showing up here we can do without."


One Big Shot in particular, Lee Teng-hui, ROC President and KMT Party Chairman, was not about to pay the slightest attention to what ignorant quake victims wanted. He would decide what they wanted. His arrogance would claim a five year old quake victim's life.


By September 24, President Lee Teng-hui, stung by mounting public criticism his administration was sitting on its collective rear end, decided to demonstrate his concern for his constituents by "visually inspecting" a tent city for quake victims in Nantou, a hard hit community only a few kilometers from the quake's epicenter.

While Lee Teng-hui's personal helicopter hovered before setting down, its rotor wash blew blinding clouds of dust into the air, sending earthquake victims scrambling for safety, and demolishing their improvised tents,

One elderly woman's frustration turned into fury. Her permanent home had been reduced to rubble. Her temporary home, a Jerry-rigged tent cobbled together from cheap plastic tarpaulins, now lay in tatters as well, courtesy of the Big Shot's helicopter.

The elderly woman marched up to Lee and angrily demanded, "You've just destroyed our tents! Now what are we going to do when it rains?"

TV news crew Betacams whirred, capturing the escalating confrontation.

Lee Teng-hui, his face contorted with rage, bellowed at the elderly woman, "You have an attitude problem! I'm here to serve all of the public! Understand? Not just you!"

Lee turned his back to the elderly woman, made homeless a second time, this time by her "public servant," and strode away from her. Lee's Praetorian Guard, smartly attired in intimidating black-on-black uniforms, held indignant quake victims at arm's length while Lee reboarded his personal helicopter.


The American historian George Santayana once quipped that "Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them." Having learned nothing from his fiasco in Nantou, Lee Teng-hui would repeat his mistake, only this time with fatal consequences.

On September 26, Lee Teng-hui's four-helicopter entourage arrived in Puli, another hard hit community very close to the epicenter. Two of President Lee's four helicopters set down inside Puli Middle School's tree-lined exercise yard, not far from a tent city erected for homeless quake victims.

As the third helicopter circled, searching for a landing spot, its rotor wash tore a heavy branch off a spreading deciduous tree and sent it crashing down on five quake victims sitting beneath its shade. Four of them were injured. The fifth, a five year old girl named Lai Yi-chun, the only daughter of a couple whose home lay in ruins and who were huddled in nearby tents, was rushed to Taichung Veteran's Hospital. She showed no life signs upon arrival, and was declared legally dead three hours later

"By some miracle we survived a natural disaster. Yet somehow we couldn't survive a man-made disaster," the mother of the dead girl told reporters. "We weren't safe inside our home. We weren't safe outside in a tent. We don't know where we can go now to feel safe." What did this man, whom Newsweek magazine anointed "Mr. Democracy," do next? Did he transport the twice-victimized five year old girl to the hospital in his personal helicopter? Did he stay by the side of the grief-stricken parents and offer his heartfelt sympathies for their tragic loss?

Mr. Democracy did none of these things. Mr. Democracy reboarded his helicopter and flew away, leaving his military attaché to clean up his mess.

An indignant crowd of local quake victims jeered and hooted at him as he lifted off.


Lee's military attaché called an impromptu press conference. First he explained that "the event was a tragedy, but the tree had already been weakened by the earthquake and aftershocks, therefore the tragedy couldn't be blamed entirely on the helicopter." Then he added "besides, the ground had been softened by the quake, contributing to the branch breaking off." Finally he claimed that "the helicopter which killed the girl wasn't even the president's, but an Army chopper carrying relief supplies."

He announced that the parents of the five year old girl killed by the helicopter would receive NT $300,000 in compensation (US $10,000) and that the president had instructed the military to "handle the matter." Later TV news reports informed the public Lee had upped the compensation to NT $2 million (US$60,000).

In medieval Europe if an aristocrat's carriage hurtling toward its destination happened to run over a grimy little urchin from a peasant family, the aristocrat was under "noblesse oblige" to compensate the victim's family. He would toss a few coins in the dust and drive on, having fulfilled his duty to the bereaved. We live in inflationary times, so the amount has changed. The attitude apparently hasn't.

On September 29, at a KMT Central Standing Committee meeting, Lee proclaimed: "Our top concern is to soothe the broken hearts of those who managed to survive the deadly temblor and to rekindle their confidence in their futures."


When Lee Teng-hui won the presidency of the ROC in 1996, eminent western news organizations published a string of astoundingly naive puff pieces hyping Lee Teng-hui's "stunning 54% electoral mandate" at the polls.

But KMT candidates during the Two Chiangs' administrations achieved 80 to 90% majorities, regular as clockwork. And why shouldn't they have? The KMT is a Leninist political machine, the wealthiest political party in the world , wealthier by far than our own Demopublican party. One would hardly expect anything less.

Now fast forward to 1996. Lee inherits this well-oiled party apparatus intact, including its Hearst-like media empire, and all he can manage is a crummy 54%?

Western observers who applied their own political context to the ROC's 1996 elections misled themselves about its significance. Lee's "stunning landslide" actually indicated an alarming decline in public approval.

On July 28, 1976, a record 8.3 magnitude earthquake devastated the Hebei city of Tangshan on the Chinese mainland. This earthshaking event was widely interpreted as evidence that the mandate of heaven had been withdrawn from Mao Zedong's regime and that the Great Helmsman's days were numbered. Mao died two months later.

On September 21, 1999, a record 7.6 magnitude earthquake devastated the offshore Chinese island of Taiwan. Is this earthshaking event, whose negative impact has been exacerbated by gross human dereliction, evidence that the mandate of heaven has been withdrawn from Lee Teng-hui's regime and that Mr. Democracy's days are numbered? We live in interesting times. We shall soon see.

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