Mon, May 19, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Beijing gives an unprecedented transparent look at disaster

By Jaime Florcruz

Graphic footage of death and destruction has been shown on China's state-run news networks in the days following the massive earthquake that hit southwest Sichuan Province last week.

Such telling video has rarely been shown by domestic media so extensively and so quickly after a national disaster.

CCTV, China’s state-run TV network, as well as some local TV stations, have interrupted their regular programming to provide 24-hour coverage of the disaster.

Field reporters give live reports of search-and rescue operations. News about China’s deadly earthquake is being updated around the clock — tallying death tolls, the horrendous damage and the government’s swift response.

Footage shows Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) surrounded by grieving villagers, his arms tightly holding two young girls.

“Your sorrow is our sorrow,” he assures them. “As long as people are still alive, we can start all over again.”

Wen traveled to the disaster areas within hours of the massive earthquake. Chinese TV covered his movements while leading rescue operations and comforting people in distress. Wearing a hard hat, he was shown standing on rubble and consoling trapped survivors through a loud speaker. The message is compelling: This disaster is terrible but the government is doing everything it can.

Such swift reaction and extensive news coverage has not been seen in previous disasters. When the great Tangshan earthquake struck 32 years ago, the Chinese media kept the information secret for a long time, even though more than 240,000 people were killed. In the early stages of the 2003 SARS outbreak, domestic media downplayed reports on the deadly epidemic, even as it spiraled out of control and spread globally.

More recently, severe snowstorms hit southern China during Spring Festival, the country’s most important holiday. Local media initially downplayed the crisis, following the government’s cue; Wen was later forced to apologize for the government’s slow response.

With the Beijing Olympics just three months away, China is in the spotlight.

Wenran Jiang (姜聞然), acting director of the Chinese Institute at the University of Alberta, said the country has drawn lessons from its past experiences with disaster.

“China made mistakes before. They seemed to have learned their lessons from the earlier episodes and this one — they probably want to manage it as well as they can,” he said.

Why China’s new approach? Jiang says that “the media follow-up is quite transparent,” in part because it “is politically less sensitive covering such a natural disaster.”

Besides, Chinese officials see tangible benefits in allowing media transparency. By showing the leaders helping people and coordinating search and rescue efforts, he explains: “the result is that the whole [of] China is being mobilized. The disaster has now become a rallying point of the country.”

Experts in the region note the stark contrast between China’s open response in the aftermath of the earthquake and Myanmar’s defensive, clumsy response in the aftermath of a deadly cyclone earlier this month. Unlike its southern neighbor, China appears open to accepting international help and providing accurate information.

Chinese officials say they welcome offers of sympathy and international assistance. Aid groups have been on standby, ready to help as soon as the Chinese government gives the green light. Officials say that will come “when the time is ripe.”

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