China and the earthquake

Li Datong
10 May 2009

Just before 2.30pm local time on 12 May 2008, Sichuan province was hit by an earthquake measuring 8 on the Richter scale. Most people across China were aware that something had happened, as the tremors were felt around the country. But three weeks after the event, the question people are pondering is: where has the biggest shake-up really occurred?

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and a former editor of
(Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper

Among Li Datong's recent articles in openDemocracy:

"Beijing's Olympics, China's politics"
(22 August 2007)

"China's media change: talking with Angela Merkel" (6 September 2007)

"Shanghai: new history, old politics" (19 September 2007)

"China's leadership: the next generation" (3 October 2007)

"China's communist princelings" (17 October 2007)

"China's Youth League faction: incubus of power?" (31 October 2007)

"China's age of expression" (14 November 2007)

"China's modernisation: a unique path?" (28 November 2007)

"Taipei and Beijing: attitudes to historical truth" (12 December 2007)

"Xiamen: the triumph of public will"
(16 January 2008)

"China's soft-power failure" (16 May 2008) In the past the Chinese media have not provided instant coverage of such great natural disasters. Rather, they have always waited for guidance from above on how to report the event. But this time was different. After I felt my building shake I went online to see if there was any official report on what had happened. To my surprise, the epicentre of the quake and its size had already been announced, and there were even preliminary casualty estimates. Half an hour later, China Central Television (CCTV) began continuous rolling broadcasts on the disaster. The Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, rushed to the scene the same afternoon to direct and symbolise the relief work; by the next day media outlets were all publishing their own exclusive interviews. The speed and transparency of reporting was unprecedented, and the performance of Chinese media outlets came as a huge surprise to their counterparts in the west.

As a result of all this, I received many calls from journalists overseas asking about the reasons for the sudden change. These colleagues wanted to know whether or not there had been a huge shift in official policy, and whether the Chinese media were starting to become freer, and what will be the impact of the quake on Chinese society. The answer is in three parts, requiring both historical context and an assessment of the current situation.

A media surge

The first point to note is the significant change that reporting on natural disasters is no longer a politically sensitive issue. In the 1980s such disasters were still considered out of bounds as a subject of news or inquiry. The authorities thought that such events harmed the country's national image, to the extent that even when a civil airliner went missing no reporting was allowed. In the 1990s China gradually became more open, and by the middle of the decade reporting on disasters had become less of a taboo.

But the shift that took place was within the system of control rather than a straight line from a blanket of silence to openness. Under the new policy, reports were required to play down the losses and human suffering of disasters and focus on praising government relief efforts and acts of heroism. Journalists were not permitted to identify those responsible for problems, and linking the events to senior officials was out of the question. This meant that Chinese reporting of disasters became something of an ode to heroes.

The media reporting of the Sichuan earthquake (the "Wenchuan" earthquake in Chinese designation, reflecting the precise main area affected) has closely followed this pattern, as is apparent in successive phases. In the chaotic aftermath of the quake, the central-propaganda department either recycled its old control-orders or was too rushed to issue detailed instructions on how the events should be covered. This gave the Chinese media three or four precious days in which they could act according to their professional instincts and the demands of their trade.

In this initial phase, many people outside China were surprised to see that in its operating reactions and procedures the Chinese media was hardly any different to the west's. Indeed, western media and other organisations used many Chinese reports in the post-quake period, and journalists awarded high praise to those responsible. This itself indicates the progress that has been made in China, after more than a decade of change (and indeed after thirty years of the more open policies heralded by Deng Xiaoping in 1978). The Wenchuan earthquake was a test of the Chinese media's ability, once it is assured of the freedom to operate, to demonstrate both that it can work and that it is aware of the need to work to international standards. It clearly passed this test.

After these first three or four days had passed, an another phase began. The central-propaganda department delivered its familiar edicts, and establishment coverage was soon filled with material singing the praises of the heroes that had the disaster had called forth. More considered reflection - as well as blaming officialdom for its failures before or after the tragedy - was widespread online, though hardly anywhere to be seen on CCTV. But what is more interesting than this dichotomy in coverage is that the controls over official media coverage are not popular, and that the government knows this: it thus did not dare officially to announce the censorship measures, nor to try to restrict the access of many people to information about the quake through the internet. Chinese politicians are increasingly aware that in the online age, trying to control the distribution of information only succeeds in damaging the government's image.

Among openDemocracy's articles on China in 2008:

Kerry Brown, "Beijing's political tightrope-walk"
(12 March 2008)

Robert Barnett, "Tibet:
questions of revolt
(4 April 2008)

Wenran Jiang,
"Tibetan unrest, Chinese lens"
(7 April 2008)

Ivy Wang, "China's netizens and Tibet: a Guangzhou report"
(8 April 2008)

Wang Lixiong, "China and Tibet: the true path" (15 April 2008)

James A Millward,
"China's story: putting the PR into the PRC" (18 April 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "China's political colours: from monochrome to palette"
(14 May 2008)

Susan Brownell, "The Olympics' ‘civilising' legacy: St Louis to Beijing"
(23 May 2008) A far distance

This is the second significant lesson of the Chinese response to the earthquake. The Beijing government has received many compliments for the way it has reacted (and indeed this looks even more exemplary when compared to the Burmese government's attempts at disaster-relief in the wake of cyclone Nargis on 3 May 2008). But the most impressive feat is not (as is sometimes cited) the Chinese government's capacity to mobilise huge resources and expertise; after all, the government also mobilised large numbers of people after the Tangshan earthquake of July 1976 (including as many as 100,000 soldiers taking part in relief work).

Rather, the difference between 1976 and 2008 is that the government today has become far more open to the outside world. As well as accepting foreign aid and relief workers, China has also been completely open to the foreign media (with casualties and figures for those missing updated daily, for example). The overriding principle of the relief effort has been "to save lives whatever the cost". The government responded correctly to the national mood by announcing three national days of mourning (19-21 May 2008); for the first time in the history of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the Chinese flag was flown at half-mast. This shows the government has realised that an authority that does not respond to public wishes has no legitimacy.

The contrast with the government reaction to the Tangshan earthquake is profound. Then, the government refused foreign aid, hid most news of the disaster from the public and did not publicise the death toll for many years. Most unbelievable of all, newspapers called for people to "push forward relief work by criticising Deng Xiaoping" (then an enemy of the ruling "gang of four", to which indeed Tangshan proved a harbinger of political defeat). By comparing reactions to these disasters, it is clear to see one just how much China has changed in these thirty-two years.

A new player

The third part of the impact of the Wenchuan earthquake lies in the completely new phenomenon that has emerged in its aftermath. For the first time the Chinese public has shown its ability to organise itself, and in doing so has displayed a considerable sense of responsibility. Within a short time, donations from business people, celebrities, intellectuals, and everyday people surpassed the amounts set aside for relief work by the government. Even beggars donated money. Streets became blocked as people queued to donate blood, and regional blood-banks quickly became full. Clubs and societies across the country turned themselves into voluntary organisations, and large numbers of people set off for affected areas at considerable personal risk - some even quit their jobs to take part in relief work. All of this was unprecedented in China.

Such actions show that a civil society is beginning to emerge - a society that is more than just utilitarian and pragmatic. With support from national institutions, China's transition from a traditional dog-eat-dog, every-man-for-himself society into a unified civil society can accelerate. It is encouraging that the spontaneous actions of volunteers were able to continue without interference from the government.

Disasters can offer a stage on which a nation can show itself. China's government and China's public are both actors on this stage - which is now, also, a world stage. At the moment, the two have not come into conflict. How will the performance end: in comedy, tragedy, farce or cathartic resolution? That will be decided by how far the government has evolved, and its ability to learn.

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