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Speaker: China: Shaken and Stirred

17 Responses

  • Kyle Matthews,

    I suspect that last statement has as much to do with the response as anything. After the messy torch relay, Olympics in only a couple of months, the opportunity to build up the impression around the world of "wow, China is doing a much better job at this than Burma/Myanmar" must be too good to be true.

    I wonder what the reality is. National radio had a reporter on over the weekend who was in the region, who was less than complimentary about how hard they were really working to rescue people, as compared to how hard they were showing the rest of the world they were working to rescue people.

    Since Nov 2006 • 6221 posts Report Reply

  • stephen walker,

    re: expunging the 1976 earthquake from history

    must be following the Cheney/Rumsfeld school of PR--
    if one pretends something never hapened, the facade becomes reality as quickly as one can say "CNN".

    but i forgot--
    Cheney/Rumsfeld learnt their skills by carefully studying the history of the CCP.

    nagano • Since Nov 2006 • 635 posts Report Reply

  • Charles Mabbett,

    Gosh, more China content on Public Address ...

    On the topic, China's leaders have already set a precedent in disaster-related public relations.

    The winter storms in January had Wen Jiaobao flying around and speaking to crowds with a megaphone, most memorably at the main railway station in Guangzhou where half a million or more people had been stranded trying to get home for the New Year holiday.

    It's simply commonsense. World leader 101 , if you like. To deflect public anger or pre-empt an uncaring look (don't you think George Bush would do things differently if he knew then what he knows now when the levees broke in New Orleans?) and to look good at home and abroad, leaders do need to put themselves in front of cameras and microphones and speak directly to Mr and Mrs Li. Otherwise as our anonymous blogger points out, you end up looking like the jet set junta in Burma. And that means looking stupid and cruel. Where's the gain in that?

    As for foreign rescue teams and reporters getting in there, including TV3's Mike McRoberts, well, that's a real sign that the Chinese leadership are fast learners. We're talking about foreign media, being given relatively free access to the story when they maybe could have done the same thing in Lhasa to show the damage caused to Han businesses and homes by angry Tibetan mobs.

    That's a remarkable turnaround but admittedly there's a lot less risk in this case.

    The Japanese rescue mission has been critical of the delay in getting Chinese government permission. Here's a country with stacks of quake experience and they were the first foreign team let in but not until three days after the quake. Realistically, their job is not saving lives but recovering bodies.

    But from a diplomatic point of view, that's a little bit of progress right there. This is the same Japan which had aggravated relations between Tokyo and Beijing because the previous PM played to a domestic constituency by paying annual tribute to Japanese war criminals.

    These are interesting times. And the Beijing Olympics are yet to come. Who knows how that will turn out?


    And

    Since Nov 2006 • 236 posts Report Reply

  • Charles Mabbett,

    And ... nothing.

    Since Nov 2006 • 236 posts Report Reply

  • Jamil Anderlini,

    I have just returned from the Sichuan earthquake zone and I’d like to make a couple of points.

    I arrived in Dujiangyan near the epicenter at 5am on Tuesday morning, less than 15 hours after the initial quake, and was impressed by the sheer number of rescue teams from the military, Ministry of Civil Affairs (they're the “non-existent” emergency response teams in orange jumpsuits with all the specialist rescue equipment if you're watching television here in China) and from state-owned enterprises who had mobilized immediately and arrived in the areas accessible by road within a couple of hours, along with numerous cranes and other heavy machinery.

    I travelled extensively throughout the region over the past week and everywhere I went the government, military, individual citizens, state-owned and private companies were working to rescue people and get food, water and shelter to the worst-hit areas. Probably many more people could have been saved if the earthquake had not happened in a mountainous region but rescue teams and the army still did an incredible job clearing landslides and building temporary roads so quickly.

    It is easy to be cynical about the clumsy propaganda methods employed by the totalitarian Chinese system and domestic coverage of this disaster has been carefully packaged by the propaganda mandarins in Beijing.

    But it is true that the current generation of leaders, particularly Premier Wen, have been characterized by a marked and authentic concern for the plight of the common people since they came into power just over five years ago and their response to natural disasters this year can only be compared favourably, not only to the junta in Burma but to the Bush Administration after Hurricane Katrina.

    The official death toll from the Sichuan quake is preliminary at best as rescuers have not even reached some of the more remote mountain towns and villages and registration of survivors had hardly started when I left the area. We can expect the final toll to be a lot higher although the official figure is still likely to be manipulated and understated for political purposes.

    One last thing. Unless they are a diplomat, I am unclear why the person who posted this blog chose to remain anonymous. If they work for a state media organization as an English polisher (as I suspect they do) then their criticism of the Chinese propaganda machine would seem a little hypocritical.

    Most other people do not need to fear retribution from the authorities for posting their opinions in English on overseas websites and as long as they write in a personal capacity it is hard to see how their employer could object to this blog.

    Jamil Anderlini
    Beijing Correspondent
    Financial Times
    Jamil.anderlini@ft.com

    Beijing • Since May 2008 • 5 posts Report Reply

  • China Blogger,

    Thanks for clearing that up Jamil. I was disconcerted to be told by several Chinese that the country does not have an emergency rescue service and it's the army's job to step in when needed. As for the specialist equipment, you're right they do have some, but what I have mostly seen on TV is soldiers digging with shovels and their hands. This is probably partly due to the inaccessibilty of many devastated areas, but also I suspect because they do not have enough gear to deal with such a large scale disaster.

    I have nothing but admiration for the many thousands of people who are giving their all to save lives and provide relief in Sichuan. Today state media announced that some 200 rescuers have been buried by landslides.

    Beijing • Since May 2008 • 1 posts Report Reply

  • Tze Ming Mok,

    This wasn't me, by the way. In case anyone's wondering.

    SarfBank, Lunnin' • Since Nov 2006 • 108 posts Report Reply

  • Ben Austin,

    This was the moment I finally used Twitter in a useful sense, using it to alert a friend living a few hundred km away from the quake that it happened. Funny that London heard about it before Hangzhou but then my friend doesn't speak the local language very well so he could well be out of the loop.

    This was his comments on his ability to find local English news on the quake:

    If you are expecting fresh news, or any information as to what is going on, I would not expect it from me. The chinese TV has a channel devoted to the story, but it is unsurprisingly in chinese. Google news searches for "China + quake" have been blocked, and even facebook was offline for most of the morning. The CCTV9 English channel is showing a programme on rowing, and the competition to become China's olympic coxswain. They are trying to pretend that a trained monkey could not be a cox, but this is sadly not the case. If it were the case, then they would not have the "who wants to be an olympic coxswain?" competition in the first place.

    London • Since Nov 2006 • 897 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    Hi Jamil -- nice to hear from you.

    But it is true that the current generation of leaders, particularly Premier Wen, have been characterized by a marked and authentic concern for the plight of the common people since they came into power just over five years ago and their response to natural disasters this year can only be compared favourably, not only to the junta in Burma but to the Bush Administration after Hurricane Katrina.

    That last point occurred to me too. And the scale of the disaster in Sichuan seems to dwarf that in New Orleans.

    One last thing. Unless they are a diplomat, I am unclear why the person who posted this blog chose to remain anonymous. If they work for a state media organization as an English polisher (as I suspect they do) then their criticism of the Chinese propaganda machine would seem a little hypocritical.

    You'll have to take my word that they had their reasons ...

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 19019 posts Report Reply

  • Che Tibby,

    To deflect public anger or pre-empt an uncaring look (don't you think George Bush would do things differently if he knew then what he knows now when the levees broke in New Orleans?) and...

    i accept all your points, but had a pedantism.

    bush did know what he knows now before the hurricane hit. there is footage of a panel of experts telling him so, and he has that same look he had when told about the twin towers.

    you know, the look that says, "wtf would jesus do?"

    the back of an envelope • Since Nov 2006 • 2026 posts Report Reply

  • Kyle Matthews,

    you know, the look that says, "wtf would jesus do?"

    I thought the look was "umm. I'm halfway through a book right now about a goat. and you know how long it takes me to read a book".

    Since Nov 2006 • 6221 posts Report Reply

  • Jamil Anderlini,

    One other point I'd like to make. As quoted by state media (in Chinese and in English) Wen Jiabao specifically mentioned the Tangshan earthquake when he said last week's tremor was the "most widely-felt" (in the Chinese version) and "most destructive" (in the English translation) since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949.

    Far from ignoring or denying the Tangshan quake, Premier Wen appeared to be comparing the current efforts with the shameful response in '76 and making the valid point that today's Party is a very different one from what it was then.

    Here are the first few lines of the English report from Xinhua from last week:

    CHENGDU, May 16 (Xinhua) -- Rescue operation and disaster relief for victims in the worst earthquake over decades are of top priority of the nation, and thus require concerted efforts from the whole country, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said Thursday night.

    Monday's 7.8-magnitude earthquake that ravaged southwestern Sichuan Province and was felt in most parts of the country was the "most destructive" tremor and had the "most wide-spreading impact" since New China was founded in 1949, Wen said on a meeting of the rescue headquarters under the State Council headed by himself.

    It was even more powerful than the Tangshan earthquake in 1976, Wen said. The catastrophe in northern Hebei Province claimed about 240,000 lives three decades ago.

    Beijing • Since May 2008 • 5 posts Report Reply

  • Matthew Poole,

    but what I have mostly seen on TV is soldiers digging with shovels and their hands.

    Yes, that's right. They're using light-weight, non-mechanised tools on the pile. Think about what they're trying to achieve. At this point, people are quite likely still alive. Consider how long after other major earthquakes survivors have been found. To put in heavy machinery, or pneumatic drills, is to risk causing sub-surface shifting that could kill people who are currently alive.
    Also, in the absence of structural engineering advice, doing anything that puts major stress on the pile is risking collapse. People, with hand tools, are the safest way of doing something that doesn't require expert assessment.

    Responding to a structural collapse is a huge undertaking. A major earthquake multiplies that by several orders of magnitude. The basic guideline for an Urban Search And Rescue task force is that they can cope with one collapsed structure. These are the experts, with weeks of full-time training to even become a member, on-going training, a structural engineer to assess the task before anything is done, and still a lot of their work involves digging with shovels, trowels and hands. Their expertise is in getting into heavily collapsed areas, shoring things up as they go. They're experts in confined-space rescue, not demolition. The soldiers will be lucky to have basic introductory training in how to deal with structural collapse, so they're doing exactly the right thing by getting in there with just their hands and spades.

    The pit from whence crawl… • Since Mar 2007 • 3925 posts Report Reply

  • Charles Mabbett,

    I found this harrowing amateur video footage which was taken just seconds after the big quake hit in Sichuan.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/video/2008/may/20/amvidquake

    Since Nov 2006 • 236 posts Report Reply

  • Yu Guang,

    Thanks Jamil, you expressed what I was thinking about this post far more articulately than I ever could.

    Far from being some kind of dirty secret, the Tangshan earthquake is widely discussed in the media and by the Chinese that I know.

    Beijing • Since May 2008 • 2 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    I wonder if this year, with its various storms, will come to be regarded as a pivotal one for leadership in China.

    The real-time mythologising of Wen Jiabao ("This is Grandpa Wen Jiabao, hang on child, we will rescue you!") strikes a bum note in the West, but I don't doubt the real effort (and, in at least one case, sacrifice) that has gone into the rescue effort.

    That this disaster has been documented, that its stories haven't been erased, is novel and important. And whatever political will has been on display, I also think it's an example of the democratising effect of communications technology. This couldn't have been wholly suppressed.

    Look at the radical broadening of access to information the internet has brought to people around the Pacific Rim. That's why, even in the case of Myanmar, I'm inclined to the view that connectivity can be the friend of freedom.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 19019 posts Report Reply

  • Bob Munro,

    The Dalai Lama agrees.

    Speaking during a 10-day visit to London the Dalai Lama said he was "quite optimistic" about the future.
    China was changing through "wider contact with outside world," he said.
    He cited China's efforts to deal with the recent earthquake that left tens of thousands of people dead in Sichuan province as evidence.
    "This I think (is) one sign that the People's Republic of China is changing, I think at least decade by decade," he said.

    And yet the communication blackout from Tibet is pretty complete. I can find virtually nothing on line from ethnic Tibetans in Tibet, save the second hand reports from the likes of Radio Free Asia and daring reporters like
    Nicholas D.Kristof


    Has anybody else had more luck?

    Christchurch • Since Aug 2007 • 418 posts Report Reply

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