May 14, 2008 / 8:36 AM / 9 years ago

Rattled by quake, Chinese seek overlooked omens

BEIJING (Reuters) - Battered by bad news of the devastating earthquake in Sichuan province, Chinese media and bloggers are asking -- why didn’t the government predict it?

<p>Soldiers help a victim evacuate from the rubble at earthquake-hit Beichuan County, Sichuan province, May 13, 2008. REUTERS/Stringer</p>

No country in the world has reliably predicted earthquakes. But with more than 13,000 people dead and as many missing or buried, a feeling of helplessness is pervading Chinese watching the disaster unfold on television, and many are seeking answers.

“I feel that 2008 has been a terrible year for China,” said a worker in Shanghai surnamed Liu, before ticking off a list of bad news -- crippling snowstorms in January, Tibetan demonstrations in March, a tumultuous international journey for the Olympic torch, a train crash in April and Monday’s earthquake.

Earthquakes were a sensitive topic in imperial China, where they traditionally signaled the end of a corrupt dynasty. The Tangshan earthquake of 1976 killed up to 300,000 people less than two months before Mao Zedong died.

Eight is normally a lucky number for Chinese, but the earthquake came 88 days before the 2008 Olympic Games were slated to start in Beijing on the 8th of the eighth month at 8 pm.

Despite few precedents for reliably predicted earthquakes, many Chinese expect government scientists should have made some progress since the Tangshan disaster.

Zhang Xiaodong, deputy director of the China Earthquake Network Centre, was forced to defend his department at a news conference on Tuesday.

“You can’t go down under the earth to look like you can with the sky,” Zhang told reporters, before elaborating on the complexity and irregularity of earthquakes that makes them difficult to forecast.

The normally cautious China Daily on Tuesday repeated a 2002 warning by a seismologist that a big earthquake was “virtually certain” to occur sometime in the next several years.

It ran a photo of an unusual mass migration of toads in Jiangsu province, and reported that a similar phenomenon had occurred in Mianzhu, in Sichuan, where over 10,000 people now lie buried in rubble.

Although Zhang’s department studies abnormal animal and physical phenomenon, results have shown a poor correspondence to actual earthquakes.

“We’re still researching whether these things are directly related to earthquakes. There’s data, but not a very clear relationship.”

Local media in April noted water suddenly draining from a large pool in Hubei province, east of Sichuan. That report has been snapped up by bloggers looking for natural omens.

Other bloggers have unearthed a statement by a local government bureau in Sichuan, quelling rumors of an earthquake about a week before Monday’s disaster.

“The help is coming, but why wasn’t there any warning?” asked Mianyang resident Li Changqing. “With science and technology so advanced, why couldn’t they tell this was going to happen?”

Additional reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Lindsay Beck and David Fogarty

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