Safeguarding Interests: Chinese Media Censorship during Natural Disasters

Gunjan Singh

The Chinese government has once again conveyed clear indication to the world its ability to administer the local media in its own favor during disasters, both natural and human. Even the government can mould the media reports for its own interest as it happened during Sichuan earthquake and thereafter. The Chinese media has shown contrasting behavior with respect to two disasters- the SARS epidemic (2003) and the Sichuan earthquake (2008). While in the case of SARS the Chinese government tried to suppress the leaking of the information as it believed that such news can tarnish the image of China and lead to internal instability. But when the earthquake occurred the media has been quite forthcoming with information and has been quite open.

The earthquake that hit the Sichuan province of China on May 12, 2008 measured 7.9 on Richter scale. This was the strongest in the last 30 years. It left almost 100,000 people dead and an equally high number injured and homeless. The tremors of this were felt as far as Vietnam and Thailand. On a closer look to the impact of earthquake and aftermath, there are couple of developments which should be discussed at length. One is the role played by the media keeping in view the level of damage done by the earthquake and the reaction of the government.

Sichuan has faced a huge amount of damage both in human life and infrastructure. Approximately 80 percent of the buildings in Beichuan County were flattened and about one percent of the population out of 15 million has been killed by the earthquake.

The most surprising development in the post earthquake situation is that the Chinese media has got a free run and has been allowed to report about the tragedy. The Communist Party that has been infamous for covering up news of disasters has not proved to be an impediment. The same government tried to completely silence and censored the media on SARS and only allowed the informations on how the situation has been controlled by the authorities. Instead, the media freedom to report on the current tragedy has greatly impressed the outside viewers. This is also in contrast to the most severe Tangshan earthquake of 1976, when the Chinese media only mentioned and kept silent. After three years of the quake, the death toll was reported 240,000 but not officially confirmed. The government’s propaganda department has been constantly on vigil and has censored the media operation. 5.

Even though the most highlighted reporting is army’s dedication in the rescue operation and able government’s promptness in providing aid, there have also been reports covering the exact level of damage and the security concerns. For instance, the four day visit by Premier Wen Jiabao to the area was given the maximum coverage. But the more serious debates dealing with bad infrastructure construction have not received their due importance. This clearly shows that the government has been successful in using the media for propaganda purposes without making it appear as a propaganda stunt. This can also be due to the fact that the government faced a major international criticism after the curbing of the reporting in the Tibetan Uprising. Whilst no foreign journalist and news agencies were allowed to cover the Tibetan Uprising, in the case of the earthquake no foreign journalist has faced any problems.

The internet has also played a very crucial role in the reporting and the follow up of the earthquake. There are a large number of postings on the websites that show pictures of discontent people showing their anger on the government officials. This is more prominent because China has been a country where information has often been scarce and censored. Should the openness for access to information shown by the government be regarded as a shift in the official policy? Is it becoming more and more difficult for the government to have a complete control on what people should know and what they should not?

The media has also given due coverage to the level of destruction done to the dams and the creation of artificial lakes and simultaneously how the government has managed successfully addressing this situation.. The Ministry of Water Resources has claimed that there are almost 69 dams that are on the verge of collapse and a huge number of them have major cracks in them. In fact, Chinese authorities say almost 400 dams (most of them are small embankment) have been damaged.

In the backdrop of these developments what is seen is that the Chinese government has successfully handled the media. The level of internal discontentment is pretty high as the people are quite dissatisfied by the local party officials and the lack of care shown by them towards the construction of the buildings. It has been highlighted that the quality of the construction was quite poor and thus the level of damage has been so high. The media has also handled the situation pretty well.

Is it that the natural disaster of May 2008 has provided a breathing space for the media? As a matter of fact, the media has reported what the people wanted to know about and thus managed to keep the government on its toes. The freedom exercised by the media has forced the party officials to accept their mistakes publicly. In an authoritarian country such a scenario is not a common occurrence. This can be interpreted in the way that the Chinese government is fully exploiting the current developments and the media to turn the odds in its favor after the Tibetan Uprising and the drastic way in which the freedom of media was thoroughly controlled. This action was criticized world wide.

Another aspect for such a stand could be that the government has learned its lesson from the SARS epidemic. While the major thrust was to control the leakage of news in the current situation it has been to manage the information. The reason could be that they had to suppress information as it would have led to internal instability and international quarantine. In the current situation trying to curb the information could have build an undercurrent of unrest among the people as the memory of the Tibetan uprising. Thus it can be concluded that the Chinese government managed and manipulated the media in both the cases of natural disasters in order to safeguard its interests.

Author Note
Gunjan Singh, Researcher, Institute for Defence Studies and Anlyses, New Delhi