CHINA: International media change sentiments after earthquake

China provides local and foreign journalists with information about rescue efforts and access to areas affected by May 19 earthquake in Sichuan province

By Shiyu Tan
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer

Friday, May 16, 2008

Foreign and local media commended the Chinese government for its timely and transparent disclosure of information following Monday's massive earthquake in rural Sichuan province.

The earthquake occurred roughly two weeks after Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar, and the differences between the two governments' rescue efforts and media policies led to an unexpected tempering of criticism of China.

In an editorial that contrasted China and Myanmar's handling of recent natural disasters, The Guardian said China changed its stance on government control over the media because it learned from previous mistakes, such as how it dealt with the SARS epidemic in 2003, and because it realized that public opinion could be used as a tool "against feckless local authorities."

Jaime FlorCruz, CNN's Beijing bureau chief, wrote that the extensive and constantly-updated "graphic footage" of the earthquake devastation on China's state-run news networks is rare. CCTV and some local television stations have even foregone regular programming for 24-hour news coverage of rescue and relief efforts.

"Today's more open, quick and aggressive reporting is a stark departure from China's poor performance in recent years," wrote FlorCruz.

A news report from the Los Angeles Times said media coverage, domestically and internationally, "strikes a delicate balance between eliciting sympathy and depicting China as a developed country." The Communist Party's central propaganda department initially barred local media from the disaster scene, ordering Chinese news organizations to use material from state media CCTV and Xinhua News Agency, but gave up after the order was largely ignored.

"Realizing the symbolic importance of the moment, Premier Wen Jiabao rushed to the scene, and was widely photographed kneeling in the wreckage, consoling victims and advising rescue teams," L.A. Times' Barbara Demick wrote.

In a news analysis piece, Andrew Jacobs of The New York Times said, "In its zigzagging pursuit of a more nimble and effective form of authoritarian rule, China may be having a defining moment." Beijing has, so far, permitted foreign journalists unrestricted access. Xinhua has continuously updated information on casualties and rescue teams' progress. Internet sites have been inundated with videos and commentaries, including criticism of the military's response.

The May 12 earthquake -- registering a magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter scale -- struck at 2:28 p.m. local time. The epicenter was Wenchuan County, about 50 miles northwest of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province.

As of Friday, 2 p.m. Beijing Time, the confirmed death toll was 22,069 but more than 50,000 people are feared dead, according to the rescue headquarters of the State Council.

Another 168,669 people were injured and 12,300 buried in the rubble. More than 100,000 People's Liberation Army soldiers and armed police and 1,235 medical teams, along with local officials and volunteers, raced the clock to conduct rescue and relief operations. A Japanese team of rescue workers has arrived in Chengdu on Friday, and foreign aid workers from Taiwan, Russia, South Korea and Singapore are expected to arrive soon.