LETTER FROM CHINA
Copyright The International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French
May 22, 2008
CHENGDU, China: The colleague trembled as she spoke. Tears welled up in her eyes and poured forth. A question was formulated, but had barely been posed before the emotion became too great, and she excused herself and left the room.
What was the point, she wanted to know, of American journalists asking so many probing questions about the proper response to the earthquake that devastated Sichuan Province last week? What good was served with people still dying and desperate rescue efforts still under way, she demanded, second-guessing the coverage of the Chinese press and asking why they hadn’t posed harder questions?
The colleague in question is not alone. Waves of emotion have washed over all of China throughout this crisis, and from a human standpoint there is nothing more understandable. But for this working journalist, there was an equally deep sense of puzzlement. What does a deep sense of pain and compassion for the victims have to do with the requirements of journalism? To put an even finer point on things, should tough questions ever go unasked?
Already, the Sichuan earthquake is being seen here in generational terms. As widely observed, it is the first time China has suffered a natural disaster on this scale since the Tangshan earthquake in July 1976, when at least 250,000 people died. Back then, international aid was spurned by a xenophobic China, and even within the country news of the event was suppressed for weeks.
As it happens, that same year was also the last time that China conducted an exercise in national mourning, not for Tangshan’s victims, but to mark the passing of Mao Zedong, who died that September.
Another generational watershed has been reached with the Sichuan earthquake this month, but it is one that many Chinese journalists may never realize, and for those who do, it is the kind of event that is too delicate to risk discussing in print.
During the Tiananmen protests of 1989, China’s hitherto tightly controlled media were as much part of the wave of social ferment as the students who occupied the Beijing square. Even while worried old veterans of Mao’s revolution led by Deng Xiaoping plotted the restoration of order that ended with a violent show of military force, China’s media were giving vent to an extraordinarily free range of opinion about the protests. State television even got into the act.
It was, as a Shanghai television producer told me last week, simply a question of covering matters of vital national importance. “This is about China,” said Shi Hong, the coordinator of the Shanghai Media Group television network’s earthquake coverage, explaining why his station could not afford to follow orders from the powerful Propaganda Department not to send reporters into the quake zone.
Subsequent events showed that China’s propaganda authorities still have a lot of tools in their kit. State ownership of all media is the most obvious lever, followed by the careful vetting of top editors, who amount to political appointees chosen for their trustworthiness. Most powerful of all, though, was a straightforward appeal to nationalism that most people, reporters included, eagerly responded to.
Three days of national mourning were declared, and the entire nation was called to order. Television earthquake coverage went wall to wall, including endlessly repeated footage of President Hu Jintao stiffly cheering up the victims during his inspection tour of the disaster zone. Front pages across the country were printed in somber black and white. A ban on popular entertainment was applied so broadly that even the use of popular songs as telephone ring tones was suspended.
As if with a snap of the fingers, overnight, the entire Chinese press corps was solemnly marching to the same drummer, hammering away at the need for national unity, and echoing familiar propaganda themes from the past.
Much has changed in China since his passing, but Mao himself would have been proud of the resilience of the system he created, with all of its attendant instincts of emotional nationalism, of fluid mass mobilization and of indoctrination.
Many of the young journalists didn’t even wait for the signal to fall into line. They felt it was the normal thing suspending hard questions about the disaster, applauding the rescue effort and the wave of patriotism and civic spirit washing over the nation.
“Once the disaster has passed, we will look back and question why so many buildings have fallen,” said a young reporter from Shanghai who violated the initial propaganda order by reporting from the field right after the quake. “We can question things later, but at a time like this, what sense does it make? It’s not the moment to inquire whose responsibility it is. We should devote all our energy instead to getting over the difficult moment.”
So many others invoked America’s experience of 9/11, at once an overly facile and inexact parallel, that one suspects guidance from the propaganda authorities.
One wishes to say to these young reporters, just as I tried clumsily to explain to my colleague, that there is no inevitable tension between compassion and love of nation and the hard-headed pursuit of the truth.
One wishes to say that government-encouraged expressions of nationalism and rallying around the flag pose potentially troubling questions wherever they arise. I would say that there is no better time to ask the difficult question than in the midst of crisis. That is the calling of a good press.
Raising questions about the slowness in opening doors to foreign rescue experts, or about disaster preparedness, or building safety and corruption, to name but a few issues, is neither gratuitous troublemaking nor divisive. It is meant to serve the public interest, not harm it.
One wishes, finally, to say that knowledge of China’s modern history suggests that the greatest catastrophes have occurred in times of enforced unanimity, precisely when the urgency of following a common call ruled out asking questions.
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LETTER FROM CHINA