Quake loosens Bei­jing’s grip on China’s me­dia, tem­po­rar­ily

The Washington Times Weekly - - Front Page - By Chris O’Brien

BEI­JING — Pub­lic de­mand for news af­ter the earth­quake in Sichuan has forced the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment to re­lax its con­trols over the flow of in­for­ma­tion on­line and in tra­di­tional me­dia — a con- ces­sion that has weighed in its fa­vor but which an­a­lysts say is un­likely to last.

The shift to­ward greater, al­beit man­aged, trans­parency ap­pears to have been trig­gered by the over­whelm­ing re­ac­tion to the dis­as­ter on the In­ter­net — which ren­dered any down­play­ing of the dev­as­ta­tion im­pos­si­ble — and a rare dis­play of col­lec­tive bold­ness from the Chi­nese me­dia.

“While it’s hor­ri­ble to imag­ine that it takes a tragedy like this for the pub­lic to be al­lowed to be kept in­formed, or to have a pub­lic emo­tional re­sponse, for those at the con­trols in Bei­jing it just made sense to let this one go, or face an over­whelm- ing pub­lic back­lash,” said John Kennedy, who an­a­lyzes Chi­nese blogs for Global Voices.

Ever since the mag­ni­tude 7.9 earth­quake struck a pop­u­la­tion area of 20 mil­lion on May 12, eye­wit­ness ac­counts of

de­struc­tion, ac­cu­sa­tions of shoddy con­struc­tion and wild ru­mors of more tremors to come have flooded on­line fo­rums and mi­croblog­ging ser­vices, which col­late text mes­sages sent from mo­bile phones.

Many Chi­nese jour­nal­ists ig­nored an or­der is­sued by the pro­pa­ganda min­istry just hours af­ter the quake to stay away from the worst af­fected ar­eas and leave the re­port­ing to the of­fi­cial Xin­hua news agency.

Xin­hua is of­ten granted a mo­nop­oly on dis­as­ter re­port­ing but, one by one, re­porters from com­mer­cial me­dia ig­nored the in­struc­tion, fil­ing graphic ac­counts of the dis­as­ter from the scene.

The pro­pa­ganda chiefs soon gave up try­ing to re­sist the tide and the pub­lic got what it wanted: an un­cen­sored ac­count of the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the quake.

“Al­low­ing a freer flow of in­forma- tion was def­i­nitely a con­scious de­ci­sion on the part of the cen­sors, but in this case the news was spread­ing too quickly through on­line chan­nels and the im­pact of the tragedy ran too deep for them to do any­thing about it,” Mr. Kennedy said.

The gov­ern­ment soon rec­og­nized the ben­e­fits of in­creased open­ness.

The Chi­nese peo­ple saw images of chil­dren’s limbs pro­trud­ing from the rub­ble of school build­ings and heard heart­break­ing sto­ries of vic­tims dy­ing just min­utes be­fore res­cuers reached them.

In their grief, they united be­hind the res­cue ef­forts mounted by the gov­ern­ment, which yes­ter­day put the toll of dead and miss­ing at more than 80,000 and ap­pealed for mil­lions of tents to shel­ter home­less sur­vivors.

The ma­jor­ity of In­ter­net post­ings praised the speedy re­sponse from the au­thor­i­ties and Prime Min­is­ter Wen Ji­abao’s hands-on approach in di­rect­ing the re­lief op­er­a­tion.

“It is im­por­tant to note that this was a nat­u­ral dis­as­ter. Peo­ple are united be­hind the gov­ern­ment res­cue ef­fort so al­low­ing a freer flow of in- for­ma­tion is po­lit­i­cally ben­e­fi­cial for the cen­sors,” said Xiao Qiang, a jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley and di­rec­tor of the China In­ter­net Project.

China’s on­line cen­sors can be mer­ci­less in their dele­tion of blog post­ings or fo­rum com­ments that are deemed “too sen­si­tive,” par­tic­u­larly in­volv­ing any­thing to do with the so-called “Three T’s”: Tianan­men, Ti­bet and Tai­wan.

Post-earth­quake neg­a­tiv­ity, though, has been tol­er­ated. “Nine bil­lion yuan [$1.3 bil­lion] has been raised but how much will ac­tu­ally get to the dis­as­ter zone?” one skep­ti­cal com­menter asked on a fo­rum on Baidu, China’s lead­ing search en­gine.

Dis­cus­sions fo­cus­ing on dis­crep­an­cies be­tween the amount of do­na­tions de­clared by the Chi­nese Red Cross and the cor­re­spond­ing num­bers is­sued by the Min­istry of Civil Af­fairs also have met with min­i­mal in­ter­fer­ence, Mr. Kennedy said.

How­ever, the gov­ern­ment has not turned a blind eye. More than a dozen peo­ple have been ar­rested for “spread­ing ru­mors” on­line, and po- lit­i­cal blog­ger Guo Quan was de­tained for ques­tion­ing the risks posed by cracked dams and dam­aged nu­clear fa­cil­i­ties.

“While the cen­sors have de­cided not to put them­selves in the path of the over­whelm­ing emo­tional re­sponse, blogs and fo­rum posts on is­sues re­gard­ing the dis­pro­por­tion­ately high num­bers of schools that col­lapsed, and whether or not to let for­eign aid work­ers into the coun­try, have def­i­nitely been get­ting deleted,” Mr. Kennedy said.

The cen­sors also have been able to keep tra­di­tional me­dia in check. Most news­pa­pers, hav­ing al­ready pushed the en­ve­lope in their de­fi­ance of the pro­pa­ganda min­istry, have largely steered clear of thorny is­sues such as why so many schools lie in ru­ins.

Given the unique na­ture and sheer scale of the nat­u­ral dis­as­ter, the gov­ern­ment’s cur­rent approach is un­likely to her­ald any sig­nif­i­cant longterm amend­ments to its cen­sor­ship poli­cies.

“This open­ness on cy­berspace is more strate­gic, rather than a par­a­digm for change,” Mr. Xiao said.

Deb­o­rah Fal­lows, se­nior re­search fel­low for the Pew In­ter­net and Amer­i­can Life Project, said it might not be long be­fore the shut­ters are slammed closed again.

“SincetheIn­ter­neti­sal­waysfirstoff the mark with crit­i­cism and ques­tion­ing, we can ex­pect that anger, crit­i­cism, hard ques­tions, ac­cu­sa­tions will ap­pearnot­longfrom­now.Then­things may tighten up again,” she said.

The gov­ern­ment now faces a tricky predica­ment: Hav­ing loos­ened its re­straints on in­for­ma­tion flow this time, a re­turn to its old ways at the next sign of dif­fi­culty could back­fire.

“The gov­ern­ment should learn a pos­i­tive les­son: When it al­lows freer in­for­ma­tion flow it is bet­ter for its im­age and le­git­i­macy,” Mr. Xiao said. “But this will not al­ways be a case, es­pe­cially if the next cri­sis is man­made.

“What power showed by the In­ter­net this time can­not be com­pletely turned back. Ne­ti­zens tasted free­dom and will de­mand more. The In­ter­net will con­tinue to be a con­tested space, but some more space will be ne­go­ti­ated by civil so­ci­ety.”

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