When an earthquake measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale rocked Sichuan province on Monday, May 12, leveling entire villages and killing thousands of people, the Chinese leadership immediately jumped into action, organizing a major rescue effort that included thousands of police and military and the transport of huge amounts of supplies. Within hours, Premier Wen Jiabao was on a flight headed to the stricken area, where he would oversee the government rescue effort.


The media was there as well, sending back pictures and written reports of the Premier wearing a hardhat as he consoled frightened victims under the rubble. In one video broadcast on CCTV, Wen was seen yelling into a hole where survivors remained buried: “Everyone hang in there. We’re rescuing you.” That might all seem like a by-the-book response to a major disaster, but for Chinese authorities it was something of a public relations revolution.


China‘s normally shackled official media demonstrated an unprecedented aggressiveness from the start. Although the Propaganda Department issued an order to the media not to send reporters to the areas — except for the four state-run organizations — a handful of journalists from the semi-private media ignored the order and on Monday flew to Sichuan, in the center of China, where they immediately began filing reports to an audience hungry for news about the earthquake. More reporters followed their lead on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Propaganda Department conceded defeat and rescinded the original restriction, while trying — with limited success — to balance the reporting.


But even the state media was gung-ho. The official Xinhua News Agency published updated death tolls in English and Chinese on its website, and national carrier CCTV provided rare, on-the-scene reports of burning railway cars, collapsed chemical factories, broken dams, severed roads and the dead being lifted from the debris. Nothing like this had ever been seen before on Chinese TV.

The international media was not far behind the Premier, making their way to the earthquake area unimpeded by the police blockades that usually are set up to keep foreign journalists away.


Applauded Openness


Jiang Wenran, acting director, China Institute, University of Alberta, praised the move to allow the foreign media access to the earthquake area, just weeks after harshly condemning Western coverage of riots in Tibet. “Considering that only a few weeks ago, China was at war with Western media, this is all quite a remarkable turnaround,” he said, adding that “Beijing has realized it could not afford such a war against Western media [organizations] which are so dominant in world opinion.” In addition, China “expects 35,000 more foreign journalists to come for the Olympics. So the earthquake, as sad as it was, has provided an opportunity for China to open up again to foreign media, especially in an area that is less sensitive and [where] sympathy can easily be assured.”


According to John Zhang, professor of marketing at Wharton, one would expect this type of reaction “when you have a mega-disaster like this and when so many lives are at stake. However, what is somewhat surprising is the fact that China allowed Western media [to have] open access to the disaster areas, in sharp contrast to its past practice of handling natural disasters.”


Zhang said it would be too simplistic to attribute the new openness of the Chinese government to the pressure of the upcoming summer Olympics. “I believe that it shows the confidence of the Chinese government in managing the consequences related to the earthquake. It also shows that the government may have learned an important lesson in handling media, domestic or foreign, in the Internet age. The lesson is that the lack of transparency will provide a fertile ground for rumors, half-truths or even lies, and it could also cause popular panic, suspicion or resentment.”


The sudden openness was unexpected given that the publicity-shy Communist Party has a reputation for trying to block, or at least hinder, reporting of negative news, especially at a time of a major catastrophe.


The government’s response was markedly different from the last big earthquake to hit China. In 1976, an earthquake flattened the city of Tangshan, about an hour from Beijing, leaving 240,000 dead, a figure that was hushed up for years and which some experts say may be considerably higher. Then, during the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2002-2003, government officials covered up reports of the disease for months as it spread around China and the world. It was only after a frustrated retired Army doctor went to the foreign media with irrefutable evidence that the government admitted there was a problem.


This past winter, the government came under public criticism when tens of thousands of New Year holiday travelers were stranded by snowstorms that shut down China’s rail system. The central government responded slowly to that crisis, and the media at first offered limited reporting of the storm. The Premier didn’t make it to the affected areas until more than two weeks after the storms began. And finally, when a serious railway accident happened in April, resulting in the death of 72 people, the propaganda authorities only allowed the top official state media to cover the grim news.


Timely Information This Time


Allowing the media access to the worst hit areas was a boon for the Communist Party, which had been suffering from a string of disasters this year. Both foreign and local media carried extensive coverage of the rescue work. Much of the coverage focused on Premier Wen’s touching exchanges with the victims of the earthquake. On the first night, the premier fell and cut his arm. After he refused an offer of medical aid, a Chinese reporter put the story out on QQ, a Chinese instant messaging service, and the news zipped around China, further adding to the official’s reputation and even leading to flattering comparisons with former popular leader Zhou Enlai. International reports around the world won immediate sympathy for the victims of the earthquake and offers of support flowed in from around the world.


“The wall to wall coverage of the devastation and the rescue efforts, the live footage of the suffering and heroism, and the wide-ranging analyses have all contributed to informing a society that is used to a censored state media,” said Jiang of the University of Alberta.


When the Southern Metropolis News, a popular outspoken newspaper based in Guangzhou, published messages from some well-known writers and scholars, many praised the free flow of information. Other accounts followed. “It helps to bring people’s hearts together when the Chinese government chooses to provide open access to information about the disaster to the public,” wrote Qiu Liben, an editor of Asia Weekly. “When China stands up from the rubble of the Sichuan earthquake and embraces freedom of information, it will be respected by people all over the world.” Added independent columnist Lian Yue, who wrote for Southern Metropolis News: “Timely information helps disaster relief work. It helps to reduce casualties, release anxiety and console those who are suffering. It helps us to become compassionate, and helps to boost our national image.”


Too Soon to Judge


It’s too soon to judge whether the government’s more open attitude in dealing with this tragic event is a sign of more freedom to come for the media, or if this is just an isolated incident. The earthquake was of such a magnitude that it could not possibly have been covered up, and the government may feel that honesty was the best policy in this instance. “With SARS, you couldn’t go into a hospital,” says Russell Leigh Moses, a political scientist based in Beijing. “This time, it was out in the field, and precluded the ability of some parts of the government to spin this or keep it quiet.”


That could change if the death toll continues to rise and public anger mounts over such issues as shoddy construction that some feel was facilitated by official corruption. “When we move from the rescue effort to recovery, we might see some different reporting,” said Moses. “The prevailing line in the government is clearly that mobilizing support and resources means allowing a wider range of information than it usually does. But much of this openness will depend upon continuing public sentiment that officials are doing everything they can and that the damage was caused by the extensiveness of the earthquake.”


There were signs soon after the earthquake that the propaganda officials wanted to regain control of the reporting. The People’s Daily quoted Li Changchun, a member of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee who is also in charge of the media, as saying that frontline coverage should “uphold unity and encourage stability” while “giving precedence to positive propaganda.” A week after the quake, the Sichuan provincial government began issuing journalist cards to foreign reporters wishing to cover the news. Checks were particularly strict in the most dangerous earthquake-hit areas.


Scholars are divided on the long-term effect of this opening up. “Yes, there are still limits, there are still controls. But people are pushing those limits as much as they can, and they will fight back those controls,” says Jiang. “The genie can be put back in the bottle but at the moment it is out, and the pressure for not putting it back is growing as well.” Adds Zhang: “An experience like this, tragic as it is, can only increase the confidence of the people in the government who are responsible for media policies in pursuing a policy of openness. However, it would be a stretch to say that there is a new government policy regarding foreign media access to crises of any kind.”

He adds: “Disasters like this are always a test for a government. The Chinese government has certainly, up to this point, passed the test with flying colors.  They are also a test for the people who had to endure the unendurable. The people in the disaster areas and outside have also passed the test with flying colors. I believe that the experience like this, tragic as it is, will help China to build a harmonious society where every life is precious and everyone is proud to be a member of the Chinese society. ”