By Julien Bertrand and Derek Sandhaus
As mentioned earlier, not a day had passed since the earthquake hit and we were already seeing cynical reactions from media outlets like The First Post blaming the devastation on China’s rush to modernization, but the vast majority of the coverage has been positive and supportive of the country in its time of crisis.
Just yesterday, the New York Times wrote a piece on the overwhelmingly positive reaction to China’s rescue efforts and the favorable impact it might have on the opinion of the international community. When just weeks ago, antagonism between China and the outside world over their handling of the Tibetan riots and Olympic torch relay seemed to be at its worst, the earthquake response marks a dramatic departure. The current international solidarity is, the Times contends, the direct result of a more honest and candid approach to national crisis by the Chinese government.
Dali Yang, the director of the East Asian Institute in Singapore, said the government might have come to the realization that openness and accountability could bolster its legitimacy and counter growing anger over corruption, rising inflation and the disparity between the urban rich and the rural poor.
“I think their response to this disaster shows they can act, and they can care,” he said. “They seem to be aware that a disaster like this can pull the country together and bring them support.”
Compared to what the rest of the world is used to seeing from China, their open handling of the current disaster may mark a pivotal new moment in the country’s development, particularly when compared to the Gang of Four’s abysmal reaction to the 1974 Tangshan earthquake which resulted in 240,000 deaths. Also when you look at the Chinese response to the Sichuan quakes next to neighboring-country Myanmar’s handling of the recent devastating hurricane, it’s hard not to conclude that the Chinese government is doing more to help their people.
This sentiment was echoed today by Bloomberg in another article that commends China on their openness in the face of national tragedy. This article also discusses the turnaround between the Tibet coverage and the current wave of international support. It also focuses on how China initially downplayed this winter’s snowstorms and the 2003 SARS outbreak, mistakes which ultimately proved costly, and the greatly improved response we are witnessing now. Both sources also view this as a test for the CCP-led government and a chance to demonstrate their effectiveness and ability to help their people on an international stage.
The response from official state-run media outlets indicates that this is not just wild speculation on the part of Western journalists either. Xinhua News online put out a piece the day after the quakes about how the government has urged local-media sources to be professional and vigilant in their coverage of quakes. Yesterday’s People’s Daily also indicates that the government, too, views this as a test of their readiness to respond to disaster and ability to openly report the news:
Our endeavor to minimize the losses and eventually surmount all difficulties it caused hinges on whether we have the matured wisdom and capability to respond to it.[…]The complete, thorough information openness and transparency have stemmed hearsays from being generated and spread, and enable general public from varied social strata to acquire a peaceful mentality with a great composure and presence of mind. Such openness and transparency guarantee the right of general public to get to know the truth…
With both sides in general agreement about the benefits of a more candid approach, this could be the beginning of a new day in Chinese media-regulation, but the real test for that will come after the earthquakes.
Also on Newsweek.com: An insightful article by Melinda Liu raises questions about the relationship between natural disasters and regime change.