Pro­pa­ganda ma­chine in over­drive for ship­wreck on Yangtze


All hands on deck: China’s pro­pa­ganda ma­chine has cranked into top gear af­ter a ship dis­as­ter, ex­tolling the of­fi­cial re­sponse while dous­ing any public crit­i­cism and tightly con­trol­ling for­eign me­dia.

Thou­sands of po­lice, sol­diers and res­cue work­ers were dis­patched to the banks of the Yangtze, where the “Eastern Star” cap­sized Mon­day evening with more than 450 peo­ple on board. But with only 14 sur­vivors found, there is lit­tle hope for the rest.

Pre­mier Li Ke­qiang has been the om­nipresent face of the res­cue op­er­a­tion since Tues­day morn­ing.

“The sleeves- rolled- up, mega­phone-in-hand im­age of the pre­mier di­rect­ing res­cue ef­forts at the scene has be­come a re­cur­ring fea­ture of China’s do­mes­tic me­dia cov­er­age of dis­as­ters,” said Ni­cholas Dynon, an ex­pert in Chi­nese me­dia at Mac­quarie Uni­ver­sity in Syd­ney.

The Chi­nese me­dia on Wed­nes­day also gave prom­i­nent cov­er­age of the “mirac­u­lous” res­cue of Zhu Hong­mei, who was pulled from the up­turned hull of the boat.

The 65- year- old woman was shown be­ing hoisted to safety in a con­certed ef­fort by divers and res­cue work­ers.

It was a scene per­fectly in keep­ing with the com­mu­nist line of so­ci­ety com­ing to­gether to sup­port each other in times of trou­ble.

In con­trast, the New York Times ran a pho­to­graph of a corpse fished from the river on the front page of its in­ter­na­tional edi­tion, a more jar­ring im­age sug­gest­ing that the toll will be high.

Com­mu­nist Party lead­ers are well aware that mis­steps over a ma­jor dis­as­ter can quickly turn to crit­i­cism of their ef­fec­tive­ness at gov­ern­ing.

A deadly high-speed train crash in July 2011 trig­gered an tor­rent of crit­i­cism that au­thor­i­ties had com­pro­mised safety in their rush to ex­pand the net­work.

Deadly floods in Bei­jing in 2012 and a stam­pede which killed 36 peo­ple at last New Year’s Eve in Shang­hai also stirred a bar­rage of crit­i­cism of the au­thor­i­ties.

And Bei­jing is aware of the se­ri­ous reper­cus­sions from the sink­ing of the Se­wol ferry in South Korea — a dis­as­ter with many par­al­lels — which saw the prime min­is­ter re­sign.

‘He­roes and vil­lains’

Un­sur­pris­ingly un­der th­ese condi- tions, Chi­nese me­dia have been told to use only the of­fi­cial Xin­hua news agency and state CCTV tele­vi­sion as their sources to cover the tragedy, ac­cord­ing to in­struc­tions aired by China Dig­i­tal Times, a web­site that mon­i­tors Chi­nese me­dia and In­ter­net.

The leaked state­ment in­cluded in­struc­tions to re­call jour­nal­ists who were al­ready at the site of the dis­as­ter.

Au­thor­i­ties have largely limited of­fi­cial ac­cess for for­eign jour­nal­ists to brief trips along the river, and road­blocks are sited about two kilo­me­ters (1.2 miles) from the cap­sized ves­sel.

“Me­dia at the scene of the sink­ing has been re­stricted, in­clud­ing for­eign me­dia, which is un­sur­pris­ing,” Dynon told AFP.

“For Bei­jing, this is an ex­er­cise in man­ag­ing do­mes­tic emo­tions, which means con­trol­ling un­equiv­o­cal mes­sag­ing around who ex­actly are the he­roes and who are the vil­lains,” he said.

At the main press brief­ing Wed­nes­day, no ques­tions were taken and no fig­ures on deaths or sur­vivors were given — but Guan Dong, one of the divers who brought two sur­vivors out of the wa­ter, gave his grip­ping ac­count of the res­cue.

Li the Leader

Li’s ac­tivism has taken cen­tre stage. Over the course of 24 hours he was seen hold­ing a cri­sis meet­ing on his plane, por­ing over a map, then giv­ing or­ders to res­cue work­ers in front of the largely sub­merged hull of the cap­sized ves­sel.

Re­ports on Wed­nes­day also showed Li, wear­ing a hos­pi­tal gown, at the bed­side of a sur­vivor.

The mes­sage to the masses is clear: the top lead­er­ship of the party over­sees op­er­a­tions down to the last de­tail and the vic­tims are not forgotten.

“While there clearly has been no news black­out as such, there has been a care­ful cov­er­age man­age­ment fa­vor­ing sto­ries about the res­cue ef­fort, the role of po­lit­i­cal lead­ers and the mea­sures taken by the state to swiftly re­spond,” Dynon said.

The pro­pa­ganda drive was il­lus­trated in a re­port by qian­, the news por­tal run by the Bei­jing city party com­mis­sion, on a Weibo post that was re­posted more than 100,000 times in one day.

It quoted a news re­port say­ing that au­thor­i­ties had limited the wa­ter flow com­ing out of the Three Gorges Dam to re­duce the speed down­stream, where res­cue work was on­go­ing.

“(I) could see the re­spon­si­bil­ity and ca­pa­bil­ity of lead­ing the whole coun­try to pri­ori­tise peo­ple’s life,” the post by ne­ti­zen Dong Mai Ying read. “I re­ally doubt any other coun­try than China has such de­ter­mi­na­tion and ca­pa­bil­ity to do this.”

The re­port has been re­posted by main­stream me­dia out­lets in­clud­ing Xin­hua and CCTV’s web­sites.

Yet on Wed­nes­day, “Eastern Star” was the most censored term on Weibo, ac­cord­ing to Free Weibo, which copies and re­pub­lished censored Weibo posts.

From a wider per­spec­tive, when­ever dis­as­ter strikes China the au­thor­i­ties seek to sweep aside any neg­a­tive el­e­ments that could tar­nish the rep­u­ta­tion of the one-party state, such as sug­ges­tions of un­safe public trans­port, lax se­cu­rity or stan­dards not be­ing re­spected.

“Ul­ti­mately, Bei­jing’s pri­mary au­di­ence is its cit­i­zens, and sat­is­fy­ing in­ter­na­tional me­dia de­mand comes a very dis­tant sec­ond,” said Dynon.

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