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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OCTOBER 1, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 39

Terror from Underground
Without warning, the earth moved under Taiwan, triggering the island's worst natural disaster in 64 years. Political aftershocks will be felt locally - and in China
By TODD CROWELL


Amid the ruins of a Taipei building, rescuers battled successfully to save a trapped woman. Others were less lucky
Cheryl Sheridan - Black Star for Asiaweek
It couldn't have happened at a worse time. Most people were asleep at 1:47 a.m. on Sept. 21 when the earthquake hit central Taiwan. So many were trapped inside their collapsing homes. The darkness only added to the confusion of those struggling to escape. Compounded by a power blackout, it also hampered rescue workers as they scrambled to the worst-hit areas.

"I was lying down, reading in my ninth-floor apartment in Taipei when the lights began to fade," recalls Asiaweek correspondent Bradley Winterton. "Then the room began to move violently. It was as if some monster had grabbed the building and was shaking it from side to side. I dived under a table as the sound of things crashing on the floor above made me afraid the ceiling would come down. It seemed to go on and on."

By the time dawn broke, Taiwan faced its greatest natural disaster in 64 years. The quake's epicenter was located near the famous scenic spot of Sun Moon Lake, and most of the damage occurred in the nearby central town of Taichung and Nantou county. Landslides, buckled roads and collapsed bridges made it hard for rescuers to get to the injured and photographers to record the events. News services endlessly repeated shots of the collapsed 12-story Sungshan Hotel in Taipei, even though damage to the capital, 150 km north of the epicenter, was minimal.

    ALSO IN ASIAWEEK
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As the second day ended, the official death toll had climbed above 1,800. The tally was certain to rise further, as some 3,000 people remain trapped inside toppled residential buildings. Tens of thousands of homeless refugees gathered in make-shift tent cities. The injured flooded emergency rooms and temporary hospitals, and roads became makeshift morgues. Some of the smaller towns were said to be virtually obliterated.

The quake, which measured 7.6 on the Richter scale, was a rude awakening, even though seismologists had warned that a big one was inevitable. After all, Taiwan lies along the "Rim of Fire," a convergence of tectonic plates notorious for generating earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Yet the last major shaker to hit Taiwan occurred back in 1935, taking more than 3,000 lives. Although the island feels minor tremors constantly, there had been no serious jolts since 1964, when a 6.5 quake hit its southern regions.

Even so, Taiwan is unquestionably earthquake country. "It's more active than most of California," says Robert Urhammer, a scientist at the Seismology Laboratory of the University of California at Berkeley. Up till now, Taiwan has been lucky: most earthquakes occur either under the sea or deep below the earth, which contains much of their rumbling, destructive power. The island's rugged coastline also tends to lessen the impact of tsunamis.

The latest quake was different. It was shallow, originating a mere kilometer below the ground. So its impact on surface structures was great. In this respect, it resembled the temblor that leveled Kobe, Japan in 1995, killing nearly 6,400 people. Except that the energy let loose in Taiwan was 10 times greater than the Kobe shock, which registered 7.2 on the Richter scale. (The calibration operates on logarithms, and each unit represents a 31-fold increase in energy.) Last week's earthquake was the strongest anywhere in the world for more than three years. Thousands of aftershocks were recorded, some as strong as 6.8.

It did not take Beijing television long to carry the news, though its initial account was only a third item, following a report about a visit by President Jiang Zemin to an exhibition marking the achievements of the People's Republic of China and a news feature. The account, however, provided much scientific detail about Taiwan's location next to a major earthquake zone and its vulnerability to tremors. That, say some observers, was designed to dispel potential forebodings among more superstitious citizens.

Indeed, traditional Chinese folklore has it that natural cataclysms, such as major earthquakes, often herald big changes. During imperial times, they might portend the fall of a dynasty. The massive quake that hit the mainland city of Tangshan in 1976, killing a quarter-million people, was widely viewed as an omen that Mao Zedong's days were numbered. The Great Helmsman died less than two months later. Moreover, three big quakes in Turkey, Greece and Taiwan in just over a month have certainly provided fodder for end-of-millennium doomsayers.

The latest earthquake comes at a time when China-Taiwan ties have hit a low following President Lee Teng-hui's recent declaration that the two sides should deal with each other as separate and equal states. So the quake could be viewed by some as a kind of "divine judgment" on his move. More practically, however, the disaster opens the way for Beijing to adopt a conciliatory posture toward Taiwan - and for Taipei to reciprocate. Newspapers in Hong Kong were quick to urge the two sides to patch things up. "This is a moment to forget the hostilities and differences of opinion and instead to cooperate in the rescue effort," said the popular Apple Daily.

Jiang issued a message of sympathy for Taiwan and offered assistance, noting that the people on the island and those on the mainland were "as close as flesh and blood." Responded Su Chi, chairman of Taipei's policymaking Mainland Affairs Council: "This is the beginning of a good relationship. Through mutual help, we hope we can create stable and peaceful ties and restore normal channels of negotiation." In the months ahead, the Kuomintang government is likely to focus on domestic reconstruction, rather than push its campaign to win greater diplomatic recognition abroad.

The Chinese Red Cross came up with $160,000 in direct aid. The Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, Beijing's unofficial negotiating arm with Taipei, sent condolences to its counterpart. It was the first such communication since the crisis broke over Lee's "two-states" remarks in July. Other nations, many without formal ties with Taiwan, promised to help. But the island's lack of U.N. membership delayed a response by the world body until it could be cleared with Beijing.

Shares of companies that make or use semiconductors reacted almost as quickly as a seismograph to the quake's tremors. Taiwan boasts some of the world's largest semiconductor manufacturers, and is the fourth-largest chip exporter. But most of the factories are located in Hsinchu, near relatively undamaged Taipei. There were no indications that the main chip-production lines had been seriously disrupted.

Even so, South Korean chipmakers saw their stock prices soar in anticipation that buyers might shift their orders to them to forestall any interruption of supplies, especially as many toy makers and other users are gearing up for the Christmas season. The shares of Hyundai Electronics Industries Co. rose 13% in a day, while Samsung Electronics increased 8.6%.

Industries throughout Taiwan were hit by the power shortages that darkened three-quarters of the island after the quake. Full capacity was not expected to be restored for almost a week. Local financial markets were closed as well. Taipei authorities reckoned that economic losses could amount to $3 billion.

Inevitably, questions will be raised about the effectiveness of the government's response to the crisis as well as its enforcement of construction codes. Such issues may even become a factor in Taiwan's presidential election next March. If shoddy building or planning is identified as a major problem, the KMT's candidate, Vice President Lien Chan, may suffer. But hurting even more could be his archrival - and opinion-poll leader - James Soong, who had sought to take credit for an infrastructure build-up across the island while KMT governor of Taiwan.

Allan Clark, a geologist at the East-West Center in Honolulu, says that recent construction in the cities "has adequately accommodated large earthquakes." In Taipei itself, the damage from last week's tremor was limited largely to older edifices, built before tougher codes came into effect. It was in smaller towns such as Taichung that the greatest number of collapses occurred. A recent construction boom in central Taiwan may have tempted builders to cut some corners. The political aftershocks of the quake are likely to reverberate for quite some time.

- With reporting by Bradley Winterton / Taipei, David Hsieh / Beijing, Alejandro Reyes / Hong Kong and Murakami Mutsuko / Tokyo

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