From the moment the earthquake shook China's Sichuan Province and surrounding areas on May 12, everyone was glued to their TV sets.
We saw the camera zoom in as a survivor was carefully dragged out, legs caught under the debris. On the count of three, a concrete slab was lifted up, and we were happy and relieved to see signs of life as the victim finally emerged from the rubble.
Every day we see glimpses of miraculous rescues on TV. But we know that they are exceptional and that the situation is many times worse than we can imagine. We know that for the one survivor we see on TV there were thousands who couldn’t be saved.
We know the glimpses we see on TV are edited to be as dramatic as possible, but that’s how we want it: to see that people are still alive and breathing after having been buried for eight or nine days, and then hear a badly wounded person who had been buried under tonnes of concrete telling his or her family in a trembling voice how much he loved them.
The good news keeps coming; the most common reports are about happy reunions. Someone kowtowed to members of a search and rescue team because they had rescued his son. Someone else ran into lost family members in a temporary refugee camp.
On another occasion, the family of a little girl recognized her when she was being comforted by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) on live TV. And there was also the pregnant woman who was pulled out from under the rubble; miraculously, both mother and child were fine.
We know that we are witnessing miracles, but we need those miracles, because we are the rescue dogs sniffing the ground, looking for signs of life, no matter how faint.
The most touching of these news reports was about a mother who left a message on a mobile phone, telling her child: “Honey, remember that I love you.”
The most moving report showed a couple discussing their wedding to make sure that the fiancee, who was buried under ruins, held on to life as the man repeatedly asked her if she wanted a Western-style or traditional Chinese wedding.
TV audiences are equally singleminded; it is as if we are thinking that as long as we keep our TV sets on, the broken-hearted digging mother will manage to dig a hole right down to her child to bring it air — almost as if we were helping her dig.
What are we waiting for? Sitting in front of our TV sets, we pick up a bit of the local language. They call their children wawa, and we wonder how many wawa remain buried under the rubble and how many parents are still looking for their wawa.
In terrible times, TV viewers need this kind of persistence: watching television in marathon sessions, sitting in their houses far from the scene of the disaster and full of guilt for being survivors.
They also need to see sad and happy news to feel that they are personally involved. On screen, there is waiting, suspense, surprise and virtuous heroes: the People’s Liberation Army soldiers sacrificing themselves to save others, fighting to the last man, and never giving up as long as there is a glimmer of hope.
This almost frightening willpower helps them overcome the curse of the crucial first 72 hours and continue to rescue people.
China is relying on old methods and unbending determination: The combined determination of hundreds of millions of people can achieve anything. On screen, no one questions the effectiveness of the rescue operations, not even whether there is probe equipment at the disaster area, navigation systems, large-scale machinery or even how the rescue materials should be allocated.