Opening China

By Peter M. Herford, a teacher journalism at Shantou University (THE WASHINGTON POST, 17/05/08):

A small group of doctors and nurses just left for Chengdu loaded down with medicines to help in the aftermath of Monday’s earthquake. This scene of homegrown assistance has been repeated all over China, because every Chinese knows the agonizing details of the story. Shantou is nearly 1,200 miles from the earthquake’s epicenter. The ground here did not shake. But people feel the aftermath. This was a national event like no other in Chinese history because this one is on TV, in newspapers, on radio, and in the minds and hearts of every Chinese.

All media in China are owned by the government, and news coverage has long been controlled by the Communist Party. News is chosen by the propaganda ministry for what the ministry considers to be the benefit of society.

This time, the news flow is different. It is following the natural contours of the tragedy.

Traditionally in China, information about disasters has been suppressed, or the disasters have been played down. Five years ago, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was not a concern until the World Health Organization convinced new President Hu Jintao that he could not hide a pandemic that threatened the world. As recently as last month, the site of a train wreck with heavy loss of life was sealed off from foreign reporters, and coverage of the event was tempered in the domestic media.

But when the earthquake struck on Monday, we were instantly informed. We soon knew that Premier Wen Jiabao, the national consoler and go-to man during emergencies, headed for Sichuan province immediately, that he was directing the rescue efforts and cheering workers on with a bullhorn. We watched as tens of thousands of People’s Liberation Army troops were mobilized. All of that might have been reported under the old rules — but this time the national and foreign press corps followed rescuers to Chengdu and began an unprecedented stream of reporting. CCTV, the national network, has been broadcasting nonstop, often live from the disaster area. The images are horrific, as are many stories. Foreign reporters, usually barred from such events, have moved entire bureau staffs to Sichuan. Xinhua, the national news agency, has been pouring forth more reports than the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse combined. All have reporters in the field, working around the clock.

What made China decide to give the world an inside view of this tragedy and, more important, give the Chinese people the details of a story that would have been controlled in the past?

Theories abound. Coverage of the riots that began in Tibet this spring was carefully managed in Chinese media. The demonstrations that followed the Olympic torch around the world were invisible in Chinese media, and the country’s image suffered. That experience may have prompted national leaders to show a compassionate face and move quickly to help after the earthquake.

The Burmese junta that continues to stonewall assistance for that country’s even greater natural disaster is a lesson in international shame not lost on the Chinese leadership.

China’s traditional reluctance to admit foreign aid workers has shifted. The government is accepting expert help from its Asian neighbors, including Japan.

The earth is shifting in China in more ways than geologic.

The Internet has opened the flow of information here. The same technology the government has promoted as a way to bring education and intellectual resources to an undereducated population has also been a vehicle for challenging censorship. Today, there are far fewer secrets than in the past. News appears on the Internet within minutes of breaking, and state media are often forced to follow.

Consider the 2005 case of a tainted water supply. The city of Harbin’s 5 million inhabitants were told to drink only bottled water but were not told why. The news that a chemical factory had exploded upstream from the city was suppressed in the local media. Internet messages revealed the pollution in the region’s main river, and, soon, municipal and provincially controlled media outlets had to tell the story.

These shifts have produced a tug of war in the propaganda ministry between traditionalists, who want to maintain control and suppress bad news, and reformers, who — while not advocating unrestricted media — see the need to accept the new realities of the Internet and the blogosphere. The government maintains as much control as it can by blocking the sites from which it fears direct attacks on the government and leadership.

When I came to China five years ago, I could not read The Post online during the annual National People’s Congress. News of the many coal mine accidents that make mining in China the world’s most perilous occupation went unreported by state media. Gradually, those veils have been lifted. I now read about the National People’s Congresses during the meetings. Increasingly, when it comes to such events as the riots in Tibet or the earthquake in Chengdu, the flow of news is at least a trickle. A bright spot in this tragedy is the free flow of information about the disaster. It’s been hard to get here, but I hope it’s harder to turn back.