Seismic politics

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:59 am


There is not much I can say about the earthquake in Sichuan, although I am glad to hear that all the people I know in Sichuan are safe. One thing that is pretty interesting are the attempts of the Chinese government to manage the crisis. James Fallows has some interesting observations on Chinese media coverage of the quake, which still seems pretty primitive. I am not privy to conversations in Zhongnanhai, but I assume that the government is very interested in looking like the state is taking this seriously and is being effective in dealing with it. During the Yangzi floods a few years ago I remember seeing pictures of PLA troops trying to hold back the water with their bodies, which probably was not very effective as a flood control measure, but did result in pictures of the Army helping the people. Paratroopers are already landing in the quake area.

Proper management of a natural disaster is of course important for states, and people are already drawing comparisons to the Tangshan earthquake of 1976, the bungled handling of which was one factor in the political chaos of that year.

Qian Gang is putting out what I would call the official line, that the time is not right to ask questions.

Some of my friends in the media have already turned their attention to the question of responsibility (问责) and looking back (反思). I want to say to you — all of this you want to do should be done, but now is not the time. The behavior of some media, which have reported already within prescribed themes before information about the quake is even clear, or which have played the story from certain angles, is even more inappropriate. There is nothing more important than human beings. In these few days, as millions of lives hang in the balance, let us observe together this great war to save lives.

All I can say is good luck with that. Perhaps the Chinese government is learning the American trick of saying first that the event is too close for us to understand it and then switching to saying that this is old news and we should not live in the past. How well the quake is defused as a political issue depends on a number of things. How well the relief efforts go. How much of the damage was caused by shoddy buildings. (At least some people are already blaming corrupt officials for cutting corners on school construction) How much future damage will be caused by shoddy buildings? (Up to 200 dams were supposedly damaged by the quake. This could end up being a slow motion disaster.) Will the state be seen as insensitive in its handling of the crisis? (Already people are asking that the Olympic torch run/great national celebration of China Power be toned down a bit.) In the next year or so I expect that things will be pretty bleak in the quake areas in part because of the quake and in part because it was a pretty poor rural area to start with. Will this lead to more talk about rural poverty? In the West this will probably be a pretty short media cycle, which may clear up a few questions in our elite media such as “Is Sichuan where Szechuan food comes from” (yes) and “Why is China so stagnant and unchanging?” (Don’t get me started) I expect the Chinese press to be filled with stories of rescue and grief for at least a while, as Qian Gang suggested.

5 responses to “Seismic politics”

  1. David Bandurski says:

    Professor Baumler:
    I was amused to see that you had labeled Qian Gang’s comments the “official line.” It goes without saying that Qian Gang does not speak for the Chinese leadership. Nor has he suggested the Chinese press should be “filled with stories of rescue and grief.” His point was to urge his fellow journalists to get as much information as possible out of the disaster area, information reflecting the real situation on the ground, and that could aid in the relief effort. He has in no way encouraged empty displays of solidarity, dramatized coverage of PLA selflessness and the rest of it, as your post seems to imply (if I have your meaning). In fact, he has spoken out in no uncertain terms against such coverage. As today: 一句话,心要热,头须冷。一切大话空言,华而不实的积习,对上负责的表面文章,为电视镜头准备的表演,此时,请统统走开!科学,专业,这是苦难中同胞的生之希望。
    If the empty stories of “rescue and relief” tire you, as they do me, perhaps you should turn to commercial media, like Caijing (caijing.com.cn) and Southern Metropolis Daily (www.nddaily.com). Fortunately, for the moment, they are permitted to report from the scene.
    I hope you find my comments helpful.
    David Bandurski
    China Media Project

  2. Alan Baumler says:

    Dear David,

    No, I did not mean to imply that Qian Gang is an official spokesman, and I doubt that he will go along with whatever line ends up coming from Beijing. I was struck, however, by how easily the quote I used from him would fit into a pretty standard method of managing the media. Sorry if I gave the wrong impression

  3. […] Frog in a Well looks at how the Chinese government’s trying to manage the news, in the light of previous efforts: […]

  4. Leon says:

    I was watching on CCTV International and BBC yesterday the three-minute silence (and lowering the Chinese flag) across China. I was thinking: has this kind of public demonstration of grief and solidarity (in the form of observing a few minutes of silence) been done before in China? A talking head on CCTV had this somewhat odd statement: “It was what the Americans did after 9-11, so that is why the Chinese are doing it now.” (I could google the reference later, if the guy by chance had written an opinion piece) The commentator seems to suggest that this is some sort of ritual or performance imported from the West, and China’s act of replication is a sign that it is moving towards a “modern” response to natural catastrophes.

  5. Alan Baumler says:

    As far as I can tell moments of silence are pretty new. Trying to get everyone in China to do something on the same -day- goes back at least to National Humiliation Day and the various national holidays introduced by the Republican governments. I think that for a moment of silence (Which in the West I tend to associate with WWI) you need a citizenry that is a bit more “wired.” Although even now not everyone in China is with the program, as this post shows. http://chunzhu.wordpress.com/2008/05/20/enough-tears-to-go-around/

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