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The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.

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May 21, 2008 7:08 PM

Sichuan storylines

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Last Monday's destructive earthquake staggered China. For more than a week, soldiers, goods and supplies have streamed into Sichuan province - located 900 miles southwest of Beijing, near Tibet. For more than a week, gruesome photos snapped amid the rubble have streamed out.

The disaster has absorbed foreign correspondents and citizen journalists. Chinese reporters have covered the earthquake diligently, out-pacing state media censors. A number of distinct Sichuan story-lines have emerged.


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Dispatches from Pacific Northwest eye-witnesses in Sichuan


The earthquake itself

When Sichuan shuddered and shook May 12 at 2:28pm - sending smaller earthquakes north to Beijing and east to Shanghai - thousands of Chinese Internet users jumped online. Within minutes, news of the earthquake was widely available. Mainstream newspapers and television stations, bloggers, instant-messagers, chat room posters and micro-blogging 'twitterati' all contributed . The tremor spooked Sichuan's capital, devastating smaller cities and towns north of Chengdu.

'Earthquake strikes western China' (Associated Press)

Human costs

Early accounts from stricken Sichuan reported 'thousands dead.' As soldiers slogged past mudslides, reaching hard-hit but isolated hamlets, the number of lives claimed by the earthquake began to swell. Headlines in China and abroad wailed '10,000,' then '15,000,' '25,000,' '50,000.' The death toll will continue to increase (now closing in on 75,000). Thousands of people remain missing; hundreds of thousands have been injured.

'Nearly 10,000 reported killed by China earthquake' (CNN)

Woeful and wonderful tales

Concerned readers and viewers from Beijing to Bellevue have shed tears over collapsed school buildings and marveled at successful rescues. On video, a girl was pulled from beneath her school - dead, still clutching a pencil. In the city of Pengzhou, relief workers extracted a 60-year old woman from a ruined temple 195 hours after the earthquake.

'Tiny bodies in a morgue, and grief in China (New York Times)
'In rubble, couple clung to eath other, and life' (New York Times)
'With China quake toll rising, an unexpected rescue' (International Herald Tribune)

Front page - Beijing Evening News (May 21)

Centerspread - Beijing Evening News (May 21)

Economic implications

Sons and daughters, father and mothers, friends and colleagues have yet to be accounted for; China is mourning. Already, though, reporters and researchers have begun to assess the earthquake's economic impact.

According to one European news service, direct disaster losses will tally around US$10 billion - less than those incurred when freak snowstorms hit southern China early this year. Experts expect reconstruction work to compensate for factories closed and jobs lost. The country's Ministry of Finance has allocated US$357 billion in temporary allowances to support earthquake victims.

However, the earthquake has left five million Sichuanese homeless. The disaster may affect China's labor pool, as well. Nearly 20 million people from the province work as migrant laborers elsewhere. Many will return home to help Sichuan recover.

'China counts economic cost of Sichuan earthquake' (Euronews)
'China says death toll in earthquake more than 51,000' (Seattle Times)

Energy and the environment

Initially, Sichuan's giant pandas demanded loads of foreign ink. A May 12 Associated Press story assured readers that 60 pandas - interned at a Chengdu breeding center - were safe...paragraphs later reporting that fifty bodies had been pulled from the debris of a school. The province is home to 1,200 endangered pandas - 80 percent of the surviving wild population in China.

According to National Geographic, the earthquake buried 32 radiation sources - mostly materials used in hospitals and factories. Sichuan contains no commercial nuclear power plants, but does host military and nuclear weapons research facilities.

On the other hand, Sichuan's earthquake may have seriously damaged 400 dams. Additionally, 22 coal mines in western China were affected. Sichuan produced 27 percent of the country's natural gas in 2007. No Chinese province generates more hydro-electricity. More environmental analyses are surely forthcoming.

'Energy implications of the Sichuan earthquake' (Green Leap Forward)

Questions and allegations

Sadness has defined China's reactions to the earthquake. This Monday, folks around the country bowed their heads for a three-minute silence. But the disaster has elicited anger as well.

Some people believe that scientists and officials knew the earthquake was coming. A contingent of parents wants to know why so many Sichuanese schools crumbled May 12. Recently, false aftershock warnings caused thousands of Chinese to needlessly flee for cover and panicked tent-seeking crowds in Chengdu.

Slow government responses have garnered harsh criticism in China before. It appears that won't be the case this time.

'Frog march sparks new China quake alarm' (Agence France-Presse)
'Tears and Anger Flow as Parents Cast Blame in Children's Deaths' (Wall Street Journal)
Pacific Northwest dispatches from Chengdu (Seattle Times)
'A tale of two disasters - China's rescue mission shames Burma' (The Independent)
'Beijing's quick response to disaster won't cover cracks of corruption' (Guardian)

Beijing Evening News (May 21)

Media set free?

China's state-controlled media has - for decades - steered clear of unfolding disasters. "In 1976, after an earthquake razed Tangshan in the northeastern province of Hebei, the death toll of 240,000 was treated as a state secret for years," Maureen Fan of the Washington Post wrote May 18. Fan, like many Western reporters and 'China-hands,' has praised domestic earthquake coverage.

"Journalists have covered the disaster with unprecedented openness and intensity, broadcasting nearly nonstop live television footage, quickly updating death tolls on the Internet and printing bold newspaper editorials calling for building industry and other reforms."

It appears that, at least temporarily, Chinese media was given free reign. Why and for how long? Theories are circulating.

'Chinese media take firm stand on openness about earthquake' (Washington Post)
'China quake critics make voices heard online' (Agence France-Presse)
'Wen Jiaobao - man of the moment' (Newsweek)

Reporting bad news in China' (US News and World Report)

'Beijing's balancing act with the press' (Variety)

Earthquake aftermath

Fresh news - of refugee camps and buckling dams - will continue to receive top-billing from Chinese newspapers and television programs, even as editors in other countries move on. According to www.danwei.org - an English-language website dedicated to Chinese media and advertising - Guangzhou's Information Times newspaper notified its readers May 20 that it would postpone publication of a high school entrance exam guide - in order to "fully devote itself to reporting the earthquake."

Heavy rains, landslides and aftershocks may hamper further relief efforts in Sichuan. On May 20, UNICEF announced that the earthquake put 14.5 million people at risk and toppled 6,989 schools. According to that organization, tents are the disaster area's most-needed aid item. Infectious disease among those Sichuanese displaced could become a problem.

'Aftershocks create panic in China's earthquake region' (Times of London)
UNICEF relief report - Sichuan
'China scrambles to help homeless as quake death toll climbs' (Agence France-Presse)
'China to probe builders after quake collapses' (Reuters)

China mourning

The country's three official days of mourning for the victims of the May 12 earthquake have now come and gone. Students and teachers observed frequent remembrances. Work units collected untold cash donations. Online gamers and entertainment seekers were redirected to disaster relief websites. Bowling alleys closed. On Monday, an afternoon crowd clogged Tian'anmen Square for patriotic chants and communal heartache. China's newspapers ran solemn front pages - black and white. University students held candlelight vigils.

'In grave grief, China mourns quake dead' (China Daily)
'Front page of the day - black and white' (www.danwei.org)
'UW earthquake vigil' (Seattle P-I)
'Wave of unity and patriotism sweeps China' (CNN)
'A day in the quake' (McClatchy)

Beijing Evening News (May 21)

Beijing Evening News (May 21)

A disastrous Olympics?

Although no Olympic venues were damaged in the May 12 earthquake, nor Olympians injured, this is China's Olympic year. Already, some of the 2008 Games' staunchest opponents have declared a ceasefire. What two weeks ago resembled a global conflict - over human rights violations, press freedoms, Tibet and Darfur - now resembles a global discussion.

The Olympic torch will resume its journey towards Beijing from the Chinese seaport of Ningbo tomorrow, after a three-day hiatus. Bloggers and 'netizens' (online users) here urged their government and Beijing's Olympic organizers to shut down the relay.

China has endured a series of crushing hardships this year, from riots to train wrecks. Beijing's Olympics symbolize national strength and unity; in the wake of 2008's worst calamity, many Chinese people crave a successful Games now more than ever.

Others maintain that the Olympics are to blame. It's the Bird's Nest - Beijing's new National Stadium - some claim...the structure's fengshui is all wrong. Or perhaps the Fuwa - Beijing's Olympic mascots - are bad luck. There are five Fuwa. One represents Sichuan's giant panda. Chinese folk traditions link natural disasters to important political events.

'China shaken - reactions from Beijing (Seattle Times)
'China's disasters by the number' (Asia Sentinel)
'Rat causing China's tough Olympic year?' (International Herald Tribune)
'Olympic torch relay resumes' (Seattle Times)

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