‘Shaken Authority’: Party-speak, propaganda, and the Sichuan earthquake of 2008


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This week on Sinica, Kaiser and Jeremy speak with Christian Sorace, assistant professor of political science at Colorado College. The three discuss his book, Shaken Authority: China’s Communist Party and the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake, which analyzes the ways the Communist Party uses rhetoric to serve its interests, the consequences of this endeavor for the region and survivors of the quake, and the urbanization of China’s rural areas.

Christian spent a year and a half in the region starting in 2012, conducting fieldwork in affected areas via open-ended interviews, ethnographic observations, meetings with leaders of non-governmental organizations and scholars, and analysis of hundreds of pages of internal Party reports.

What to listen for this week on the Sinica Podcast:

13:10: Sorace explains why, for a short time in the aftermath of the quake, some perceived the seeds of civil society to be growing: “This activity was limited to a short window of the rescue period in which lives were at stake and time was of the essence. And after this short window of rescue, the reconstruction phase begins, and then the picture changes entirely and top-down control was reasserted.”

18:03: Sorace elaborates on the role of gratitude education (感恩教育活动 gǎn ēn jiàoyù huódong) in shaping perceptions of post-earthquake reconstruction: “Officials would talk about gratitude education as a way of ‘removing psychological obstacles, and returning overly emotional people to a reasonable and rational state,’ so there’s also a kind of control element here.” He then elaborates on the haunting similarities between what happened in the aftermath of the earthquake and the horrors that are occurring now in Xinjiang.  

26:32: “Over 7.7 million square meters of urban space was built in the reconstruction. Fifty percent of their entire rural population were moved into cities, so this is a massive expansion of urban space.” Christian reflects on the concept of “utopian urbanization” and his time living in these newly built apartments that housed disaster victims.

39:11: Superfluous slogans, turgid language… Can anything of value truly be gleaned from official language coming from the Chinese state? Sorace explains the significance of rhetoric in understanding the Communist Party: “…to dismiss everything that the Communist Party says, as this empty propaganda actually makes everything that’s going on in China actually much harder to understand. And if we pay close attention and train [our] sensitivity to listening to this ‘Party-speak,’ it actually can tell us quite a bit about what’s going on.”


Jeremy: The Epic of Gilgamesh, by father and son duo Kevin and Kent Dixon, a graphic novel version of the original epic.

Kaiser: The Vietnam War, by Ken Burns.

Christian: Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey Smith, a look at the nature and evolution of consciousness.

This podcast was edited and produced by Kaiser Kuo and Jason MacRonald.