Centralised power or fragmented authoritarianism? The Wenchuan earthquake of 12 May 2008 resulted in an estimated death toll of 69,277 people, with 17,923 more missing and over 4,800,000 people left homeless. The earthquake also extensively damaged public infrastructure, including more than 53,000 km of roads and 48,000 km of tap water pipelines (US Department of Interior 2008). Statistics can only provide a rough and unsatisfactory representation of the devastation caused by the earthquake, which surpasses the scope of human imagination. The earthquake predominantly impacted a remote and impoverished region of Sichuan Province. The astronomical financial requirements for the reconstruction exceeded the meagre resources of local governments and disaster victims. Despite the fanfare surrounding the central government’s inclusion of postearthquake reconstruction funds within their 2008 stimulus package, the proportion of specialised direct transfer payments to local governments increased only marginally. In 2008, the central government allocated RMB38,473 million for emergency rescue and relief and an additional RMB68,070 million for reconstruction, which in total represented one-fifth of the central government’s 2008 revenue growth (Liu 2010). This amount still fell under the estimated total costs of the reconstruction by a substantial amount. New channels for financing the reconstruction were desperately needed and found in the mechanism of partner assistance. The central government paired 19 relatively affluent provinces/municipalities with severely damaged counties in the earthquake zone. The assisting partners were mandated to earmark at minimum 1 per cent of their annual GDP of the preceding year, for each year of the three-year reconstruction period (see Appendices 1 and 2). Each assisting partner was politically responsible for the success or failure of the reconstruction process in its assigned county. The political

urgency of the programme triggered a frenzy of reconstruction activity, projects and competition between partners. By September 2011, partner assistance completed a total 3,662 projects and invested RMB78,454 million (Wan and Ma 2011). The programme was widely hailed as a cornerstone of the ‘miracle’ of the post-Wenchuan earthquake reconstruction.1 The post-quake slogan ‘when one place is in trouble, help comes from all sides’ (yi fang you nan, ba fang zhi yuan) discursively framed partner assistance as the convergence of national solidarity (Teets 2009), neo-Confucian morality (Makley 2014; Edgerton-Tarpley 2014) and state-led socialist construction (Sorace 2014). This slogan was trumpeted as a fulfilment of Deng Xiaoping’s vision of a sequential path towards common prosperity epitomised by the phrase: ‘Those people and regions who become rich first will bring along those who lag behind’ (xian fu dai hou fu). For the Party, partner assistance vividly demonstrated the superiority of China’s one-party political system. ‘Partner assistance is a window display of the national image, Party image, and cadre image; it is also a battlefield to hammer cadre ranks into shape and improve the inner quality of cadres’ (Gu 2011: 324). The reconstruction was a political argument on the international stage for the superiority of China’s political system (Yi 2014). The Party’s reliance on centralised power and campaign-style mobilisation avoided democratic fragmentation and paralysis. On the one hand, the Party’s assertion is persuasive. As a thought-experiment, imagine the US federal government ordering individual states to transfer at least 1 per cent of local state revenue for a total of three years to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. President Obama’s failed endeavour to disperse federal funds to states in order to construct a national high-speed rail system is a prime example of how constitutionally protected local state power can undermine the construction of national infrastructures (William 2011; Tobin 2010). On the other hand, the Party’s self-flattery is misleading as it overestimates the cohesiveness and uniformity of China’s fragmented authoritarianism. Mobilising power is not the same as managing it, and collectively concentrating resources does not guarantee their efficient and fair distribution.