Quake shakes Beijing’s grip on media

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BEIJING - Public demand for news after the earthquake in Sichuan has forced the Chinese government to relax its controls over the flow of information online and in traditional media - a concession that has weighed in its favor but which analysts say is unlikely to last.

The shift toward greater, albeit managed, transparency appears to have been triggered by the overwhelming reaction to the disaster on the Internet - which rendered any downplaying of the devastation impossible - and a rare display of collective boldness from the Chinese media.

“While it´s horrible to imagine that it takes a tragedy like this for the public to be allowed to be kept informed, or to have a public emotional response, for those at the controls in Beijing it just made sense to let this one go, or face an overwhelming public backlash,” said John Kennedy, who analyzes Chinese blogs for Global Voices.

Ever since the magnitude 7.9 earthquake struck a population area of 20 million on May 12, eyewitness accounts of destruction, accusations of shoddy construction and wild rumors of more tremors to come have flooded online forums and microblogging services, which collate text messages sent from mobile phones.

Many Chinese journalists ignored an order issued by the propaganda ministry just hours after the quake to stay away from the worst affected areas and leave the reporting to the official Xinhua news agency.

Xinhua is often granted a monopoly on disaster reporting but, one by one, reporters from commercial media ignored the instruction, filing graphic accounts of the disaster from the scene.

The propaganda chiefs soon gave up trying to resist the tide and the public got what it wanted: an uncensored account of the immediate aftermath of the quake.

“Allowing a freer flow of information was definitely a conscious decision on the part of the censors, but in this case the news was spreading too quickly through online channels and the impact of the tragedy ran too deep for them to do anything about it,” Mr. Kennedy said.

The government soon recognized the benefits of increased openness.

The Chinese people saw images of children’s limbs protruding from the rubble of school buildings and heard heartbreaking stories of victims dying just minutes before rescuers reached them.

In their grief, they united behind the rescue efforts mounted by the government, which yesterday put the toll of dead and missing at more than 80,000 and appealed for millions of tents to shelter homeless survivors.

The majority of Internet postings praised the speedy response from the authorities and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s hands-on approach in directing the relief operation.

“It is important to note that this was a natural disaster. People are united behind the government rescue effort so allowing a freer flow of information is politically beneficial for the censors,” said Xiao Qiang, a journalism professor at the University of California at Berkeley and director of the China Internet Project.

China’s online censors can be merciless in their deletion of blog postings or forum comments that are deemed “too sensitive,” particularly involving anything to do with the so-called “Three T’s”: Tiananmen, Tibet and Taiwan.

Post-earthquake negativity, though, has been tolerated. “Nine billion yuan [$1.3 billion] has been raised but how much will actually get to the disaster zone?” one skeptical commenter asked on a forum on Baidu, China’s leading search engine.

Discussions focusing on discrepancies between the amount of donations declared by the Chinese Red Cross and the corresponding numbers issued by the Ministry of Civil Affairs also have met with minimal interference, Mr. Kennedy said.

However, the government has not turned a blind eye. More than a dozen people have been arrested for “spreading rumors” online, and political blogger Guo Quan was detained for questioning the risks posed by cracked dams and damaged nuclear facilities.

“While the censors have decided not to put themselves in the path of the overwhelming emotional response, blogs and forum posts on issues regarding the disproportionately high numbers of schools that collapsed, and whether or not to let foreign aid workers into the country, have definitely been getting deleted,” Mr. Kennedy said.

The censors also have been able to keep traditional media in check. Most newspapers, having already pushed the envelope in their defiance of the propaganda ministry, have largely steered clear of thorny issues such as why so many schools lie in ruins.

Given the unique nature and sheer scale of the natural disaster, the government’s current approach is unlikely to herald any significant long-term amendments to its censorship policies.

“This openness on cyberspace is more strategic, rather than a paradigm for change,” Mr. Xiao said.

Deborah Fallows, senior research fellow for the Pew Internet and American Life Project, said it might not be long before the shutters are slammed closed again.

“Since the Internet is always first off the mark with criticism and questioning, we can expect that anger, criticism, hard questions, accusations will appear not long from now. Then things may tighten up again,” she said.

The government now faces a tricky predicament: Having loosened its restraints on information flow this time, a return to its old ways at the next sign of difficulty could backfire.

“The government should learn a positive lesson: When it allows freer information flow it is better for its image and legitimacy,” Mr. Xiao said. “But this will not always be a case, especially if the next crisis is man-made.

“What power showed by the Internet this time cannot be completely turned back. Netizens tasted freedom and will demand more. The Internet will continue to be a contested space, but some more space will be negotiated by civil society.”

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