From initial reports, the Chinese earthquake sounds pretty terrible. With magnitude of 7.9, it was 10 times as strong as the 1989 San Francisco quake and, accordingto U.S. Geological Survey stats (but not the LAT), more powerful than the 1906 quake that leveled San Francisco. And San Francisco, in either case, was much less populous than Sichuan province, which has 100 million people.
As bad as it was, however, the Sichuan quake would have been much worse had it occurred a few decades ago, when China was less open and prosperous and, thus, less resilient. As this MSNBC video points out a weaker 1976 quake killed a quarter million people. Back then, the Chinese government tried to suppress news of the quake, a stark contrast to today. Reading between the lins of this LAT report about local concerns, however, it seems Chinese government officials still don't quite know how to channel the charitable giving that inevitably follows such a disaster. But the Red Cross seems like a good start.
On a related note, I found this review of a new book about the 1755 Lisbon quake made famous by Candide interesting.