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Taiwan is digging out of the worst earthquake to hit the island since 1935. The magnitude 7.6 temblor has claimed more than 2,100 lives, and the death toll is sure to climb as rescuers search for the other 3,000 people thought to be trapped in the rubble. More than 5,000 others are injured; 100,000 have been left homeless.

Although every such tragedy is shattering, the Taiwanese have reasons to be thankful. Despite being rocked by dozens of temblors each year, this is the first big quake in over half a century. Thanks to better enforcement of building codes, the death toll is a fraction of the toll in Turkey after its magnitude 7.4 earthquake last month.

And finally, the Taiwanese, like the Greeks and Turks, may discover that the compassion and sense of shared vulnerability triggered by such catastrophes could help bring former antagonists closer together. The Greek government responded quickly to the Turkish earthquake, dispatching aid and rescue crews, an act that surprised many Turkish people. The gesture was reciprocated days later when Greece was hit by another temblor. While specifics are hard to identify, there has definitely been a change in relations between the two governments: A mutual tragedy has done what politics could not.

A similar opportunity now exists for the governments in Beijing and Taiwan. Upon receiving news of the quake, China sent condolences, $160,000 in aid and promises of future help. Chinese President Jiang Zemin said the disaster “hurt the hearts of people on the mainland as the Chinese people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are as closely linked as flesh and blood.” His tone was matched in Taipei, where a government spokesman proclaimed “the beginning of a good cross-strait relationship” that he hoped would lead to “stable and peaceful cross-strait ties and restore normal negotiation channels.”

The emphasis now belongs on rescue efforts. The people of Taiwan have much to do before their lives return to normal; now, however, “normal” might be even better than before.

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