Department of Geography and Resource Management (GRM), The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Research Projects

Are we using a resilience-based approach to rebuild Wenchuan after the 2008 Great Sichuan Earthquake?

Prof. XU Jiang

The idea of resilience is commonly understood as the ability to survive and adapt in the face of uncertain disturbances, such as natural disasters. Although this concept is still evolving, scholars gradually come to agree that, instead of focusing on external threats, resilience emphasizes internal coping and adaptive capacity, and accordingly it invests in societal capacity building rather than mere resistant physical infrastructure provision. This notion of resilience is often associated with a belief that strong state intervention is not desirable.


But is it necessarily the case? In a policy environment with strong state tradition, could the pursuit and realization of resilience still be possible? This intriguing question motivated Professor Xu to conduct this research. Countering prevailing arguments, she unravels that the practice of resilience might depend on the active intervention and remaking of the state in places where the state has endeavored to maintain strong socio-economic control. In so arguing, Professor Xu and her team are not denying the necessity for individuals and communities to make themselves less vulnerable to future catastrophes. What they simply want to emphasize is the need to pay close attention to the important role of the state in building resilience.


In addition, the research findings of this project demonstrates that post-earthquake reconstruction did raise local capacity of risk management and help local population to better cope with several secondary disasters after 2008. Local officials, planning professionals and residents became more aware of seismic risks, of where the causative faults are located, of how the ground behaves, of which zones and buildings are most vulnerable, of the need for strong social bonds, and of the odds of experiencing a damaging earthquake and mudslide. Throughout the planning process, all the players grew to understand the importance of disaster safety. Schools in Weizhou, for instance, have rescheduled their school terms to avoid rainy seasons when geological risks are high. Disaster drills have been established and saved lives in a few secondary disasters. Every responsible government official is equipped with a walkie talkie in case of urgency. Although difficult to measure, these are not insignificant achievements. Communities and individuals are increasingly enrolled in a state-mandated ‘frameworks of action’ to manage radical uncertainty.