By Howard W. French
Published: May 20, 2008
When China began a three-day national mourning period, people across this country quietly understood it as marking an unofficial end to the search and rescue phase of recovery from the devastating earthquake that has killed at least 40,000 people.
A rule of thumb in disasters of this kind is to expect few survivors after the passage of 72 hours. But Tuesday, eight days after the earthquake struck, news of the rescue of 129 students and 10 teachers in an isolated town in Wenchuan County has overturned these rules, and with them, perhaps an understanding of the nature of the crisis.
Early reports about the rescue carried by Xinhua, the official news agency, provided few details about the condition of the students or the circumstances of their rescue, except to say that they were ferried to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, by military helicopters and taken immediately for medical care.
Earlier reports said that 1,100 troops had been dispatched to the valley surrounding the small town of Yinxing, and were proceeding from hamlet to hamlet, redoubling rescue efforts in an area that appears to have been largely overlooked in the initial emergency response.
The discovery of so many survivors in an area where little effort had previously been made to look raises questions about the statistics employed by the government and the media in establishing a tally throughout the crisis. The numbers have risen steadily, day by day. On Tuesday the government raised the confirmed death toll to 40,075, with the number of missing put at 32,361. Earlier officials had said the final number killed by the quake was expected to surpass 50,000.
But how solid these numbers are seems subject to doubt, particularly for those in categories like “missing” or “believed dead” that are by definition vague.
In their rush to save people, China’s rescue workers often sped past small villages, sometimes even within sight of people who needed emergency help. This was done in the spirit of a kind of triage, focusing efforts on places where the largest numbers of people could be saved. In the mountains of central Sichuan, where road networks have been cut off by landslides and bridge collapses, how many villages and hamlets have been overlooked even now is unclear.
With questions like this looming, China’s propaganda authorities have moved to reassert their control over the nation’s media.
Newspapers around the country have adopted solemn, color-free front pages and headlines with strongly nationalistic overtones, inviting readers to rally around the government.
The near lock-step uniformity that began with the start of the three-day mourning period on Monday comes immediately on the heels of a remarkable, if fleeting, breakout by the Chinese press from the government’s strict controls.
In the early days of the crisis, hundreds of reporters effectively ignored orders from the Central Propaganda Department not to travel to the earthquake zone and a later order telling them they were only free to travel with authorized rescue groups.
Little of the resulting coverage posed questions that were directly critical of the government, but the spirited response of the country’s press corps, including its disregard for orders from above, seems to have prompted more aggressive attempts at state control.
One element of this new control, confirmed by several Chinese reporters, has been an order not to speak with their Western counterparts.
The propaganda conformity has also coincided with the emergence of the country’s president, Hu Jintao, in a more visible command role in the crisis. In the early aftermath of the earthquake, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao had been virtually the sole face of the Chinese government, flying immediately to the disaster zone and working seemingly tirelessly to encourage rescue operations.
Through front-line performances like these, Wen has developed an image as a thoroughly modern politician, almost in the Western mold, whereas Hu, by contrast, seems much more comfortable in formal, carefully scripted roles, enhancing his reputation as a more conservative figure.
“This is the same thing as diminishing other problems through the overwhelming attention to the Olympics,” said a Shanghai editor of a Communist Party newspaper, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “This way people will shy from raising issues, because, ‘The nation is suffering, so how can you make trouble?’ That’s the idea.”
“There’s no talking about problems when we’re happy, and no talking about problems when we’re sad.”
Many reporters and editors said that while a coordinated propaganda campaign was unmistakably under way, the overwhelming emphasis on upbeat stories, national unity and the avoidance of hard questions was something that most members of the media here approved of anyway.
Click to read more
By Howard W. French