Sophie* makes the point in her comment to this post that it could happen to other urban centers such as Tokyo with devastating effect. Let me elaborate on my response there in this separate post, since the subject matter goes well beyond that particular post.
Sophie is right—the existence of many buildings that predate the progressive tightening of building codes, as well as irregularities exposed in the Great Kansai Earthquake and the Aneha architectural frauds, and, more broadly, uncertainties over the preparedness of the authorities give rise to potential for enormous loss and damage to life and property in the event. It is quite possible that this could lead to major political changes
But for the purposes of this blog, that is where the similarity between Japan and China, two states with large urban populations sprawled over tectonic danger zones, ends. In Japan, political change could range from the resignation of the Cabinet Ministers that have been found wanting to a wholesale change of the Cabinet including the Prime Minister, including a transfer of power to the opposition. However, these are at most changes in administrations, which do not significantly alter the constitutional regime that has been in place for the last six decades. This is because the rules and procedures for the transfer of political power in accordance with changes in the popular mandate have been accepted and at work for the last six decades.
Such is not the case for authoritarian China. The Chinese President may be selected by the National People’s Congress and the members of the National People’s Congress may be elected however indirectly by the Chinese electorate. But this entire political leadership is chosen for all practical purposes by the Communist Party, which for all practical purposes monopolizes political power whose link to the public’s mandate is pro forma and tenuous. This is fine when the President (and the Prime Minister) and partly by implication the Communist Party enjoy the favor of public opinion, as in the case of the current Hu-Wen administration. But if something goes seriously wrong and the leadership loses the trust of the Chinese public, changing the President is fraught with difficulties, since the leader of the administration is the leader of the political party, which is only nominally accountable to the electorate. And more drastic changes are constitutionally impossible, since no real opposition is allowed in the Congress, and the military is also under the control of the Communist Party.
This lack of accountability creates a hard but brittle form of political stability—a feature, actually, of all successful authoritarian regimes. The current Chinese administration, like all of its predecessors since 1978, is doing its best to satisfy the needs and wants of the Chinese people. In fact, its popularity, as well as that of the regime itself, lies in the phenomenal economic success that they have achieved and continue to achieve during this period. As a result, China, for all its social ills, currently enjoys an unforced stability that must be as the envy of most authoritarian regimes worldwide. But in keeping with its nature, the authorities will not hesitate to contain popular discontent by force commensurate with whatever gap between itself and whatever part of its constituency in question. That has been most visibly brought into focus in its response to the most recent Tibetan acts of dissent, where the forces of repression were evident in their full splendor—full splendor, that is, to the extent that the Chinese authorities allowed us to bear witness.
But ultimately, machineries of repression are human. Their collective will could be sapped by contagion of a deep and pervasive discontent among the general population. The need to augment repression to contain increasing unrest would only magnify the problem. A major exogenous event or set of events can create a spike in the extant disorder. A confluence of the two could occur that is serious enough to cause state power to snap, and the authoritarian regime to disintegrate.
In the case of China, a serious and prolonged downturn in the economy would undermine the very means by which the Communist regime maintains its hold on its constituency. Is that possible? The CEO of a major fund-of-funds that I had a chance to talk to yesterday believes that there is a not inconsequential chance for a serious and prolonged recession of global proportions as one of two possible scenarios for the next two or three years, and that China will be a significant part of this scenario. And the exogenous shock that escalates the disorder? A major earthquake directly hitting Beijing would certainly be a major event.
Any such scenarios would be highly speculative and individually unlikely. But the authoritarian nature of the Chinese regime will itself be a destabilizing factor at the extremes. The authorities there will surely use the experience of the Sichuan earthquake to prepare for the next big tremor. Hopefully, they will also take it as a stepping stone in its modulated shift towards a less authoritarian and, however speculative and distant, ultimately democratic regime. The victims deserve no less.
* I dimly recall that she had a website, but it’s not in her profile. If I’m not mistaken there, would she care to give us the link here?