BEIJING — Chinese news coverage of the killer earthquake in Taiwan has been both muted and sporadic, ranging from solicitous concern for the rogue province to no news at all. When the earthquake did get print or air time in the week following the temblor, coverage tended to focus on what mainland authorities, ranging from China’s Red Cross to Beijing-based seismologists, had to say.

If mainland authorities sounded nervous, however, it was not because of tectonic aftershocks. Taiwan’s sorrow threatened to cast a shadow on yesterday’s National Day celebrations in Beijing.

The Sept. 22 edition of People’s Daily devoted a quarter of its front page to the earthquake “which struck our country in Taiwan Province,” emphasizing President Jiang Zemin’s comment about Taiwan being as “inseparable as flesh and blood,” that aid would be offered and the fact that Guangdong, Fujian and other mainland provinces felt aftershocks. Beijing Youth News presented the same story with photos and a short article saying that the Mid-Autumn Festival would not be a happy one this year. China Daily, aimed at a more international, English-reading audience had less incendiary rhetoric about Taiwan’s “provincial” status, but basically told the same story (“Jiang extends condolences . . .”)

The People’s Daily has yet to offer a photo of the disaster, and CCTV news has only given bare-bones coverage of the massive fatalities. A day after the news was announced, CCTV’s evening news and the People’s Daily had nothing at all to say about it. On Sept. 23 the quake got a brief mention: a pictureless update on China’s aid efforts sandwiched between a cheerful feature story about the festive lights and fountains recently put up in cities across China and the weather report.

Why have the Chinese media been so tight-lipped about Taiwan’s misfortune?

The fact is that Taiwan’s killer quake has people on both sides of the straits spooked, since earthquakes have long been regarded as a sign that someone’s mandate of heaven is up. The Sept. 21 disaster came in the midst of a war of words in which China was threatening military action against Taiwan, and it caught everyone off guard.

Some interpretations: 1) it is divine punishment against Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui for suggesting that Taiwan is a de facto independent state; 2) it is chance for China to demonstrate that Taiwan is an integral part of the country — thus the dark mood of shared misfortune; 3) the earthquake means the mandate of heaven is shaky in China on the eve of National Day.

As I watched the moon rise across the ancient sacrificial altar at Ditan Park, a cosmic square-within-a-square built nearly five centuries ago to ensure harmony between Heaven and Earth, I was struck by the tremendous effort and expense the Ming and Qing emperors had taken to create the appearance of a heavenly mandate. The Imperial Palace, Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven, Sun and Moon temples, are all physical manifestations of a politically correct relationship between the celestial and the terrestrial.

In today’s China, the impulse survives. Billions of yuan have been spent to give Beijing a massive facelift, but this is not to be mistaken for urban renewal. Rather it is calendar ritual, intended to reflect the Communist Party’s politically correct relationship with the people ahead of the nation’s 50th anniversary. The streets are clean, flowers are in bloom, canals are dredged, fountains bubble and shoot skyward as colored lights make the nights festive. On Oct. 1, tens of thousands of students of all ages joined a tightly choreographed march across Tiananmen Square along with tanks, rocket launchers and the people’s army.

Anniversaries in China, where a cyclical view of history still lingers, have more resonance than in the West, where linear time puts history irretrievably in the past.

Here, anniversaries are loved and dreaded precisely because they might bring with them a repetition of past events — witness the annual nervousness around June 4 or the seasonal joy of autumnal mooncakes. On Oct. 1, the founding of People’s China is relived, with Chairman Jiang instead of Mao reviewing the troops from the balcony of Tiananmen Gate.

Given the country’s obsessive desire to throw the perfect party, the Taiwan earthquake couldn’t have come at a worse time. The unluckiness of the timing, above and beyond normal humanitarian concerns, has presented the Beijing-controlled media with a dilemma. In the season designated for orchestrated praise of half a century of communism, Taiwan, the province that got away, is commanding the world’s attention. The war of “liberation” is not over.

Indeed, Global Times (an informative, “liberal” weekly published under the auspices of the People’s Daily) even warned that a new disaster would follow on the heels of the earthquake disaster if Taiwan didn’t renounce the “two-country theory.” Thus missiles could yet fly over the Taiwan Strait, although not until after the 50th anniversary is fittingly celebrated.

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