The Sichuan Earthquake and the Heavenly Mandate: legitimizing Chinese rule through disaster discourse
In the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the Chinese authorities launched a major public relations campaign to relay positive images of their relief effort and strengthen their political legitimacy. The effect has been a proliferation of symbols and political statements related to the disaster, not only in the official media, but also in cultural products such as movies or mass-media events. The earthquake has become part of the discourse of suffering, struggle, solidarity and ultimately victory. This article examines the ways in which various cultural products present the Sichuan earthquake and asks what meanings national crises have in the Chinese discourse on political legitimacy. The article analyses two cases: Chinese film, here in the form of Feng Xiaogang's blockbuster Aftershock, and performance-based discourses during the Beijing Olympics, the PRC's 60-Year Anniversary and the Shanghai Expo. By conducting a discourse analysis, we show how the earthquake has become part of a recurring discursive formation that is used by state and non-state actors alike to legitimate China's developmental model. Within this discourse, the leadership of the Party, the mastery of free markets and a revamped version of the Confucian idea of benevolent rule are marshaled as the decisive factors for winning any ‘battle’.