May 19, 2008

Tracking China’s Earthquake on TV and the Internet – Part II

by Deborah Fallows, Senior Research Fellow

I have continued to watch Chinese TV and monitor the internet since the earthquake happened, one week ago. Chinese TV has regained its footing and is back to being the voice of the government. The internet has become a more wild-west version of itself, with a virtual explosion of content that runs the gamut from informative to creative, cynical, touching, responsible, irresponsible, angry, maudlin…

Day 5: On Chinese TV, footage of planeloads of aid pouring in from around China and the world began to replace footage of new rescues, which were becoming scarce. We heard, however, that 63 more people had been found alive, and workers and officials alike declared they would continue searching “as long as there was even one percent of hope.” The TV strayed from message, touching the hot button issue of Tibet, with video of monks praying for earthquake victims. They also showed aid and relief workers arriving from Taiwan, and aired a long, rather puzzling and awkward interview about the motives and methods behind the Taiwanese rescue efforts.

Meanwhile, the voices on the internet took on many tones: tearful, desperate, cynical, doubting, original, catty, and one quite rare in China: religious. John Kennedy, who translates and reports on Chinese blogs for Globalvoicesonline.org, a new media project which translates and curates blogs from around the world, wrote: “‘Pray for the disaster victims, god bless China’ has been the main motif on many main Chinese blogging websites.” I also saw a report about a letter that a schoolgirl wrote in gratitude to “Grandfather Wen [Wen Jiabao, China's premier]” and pushback comments suggesting the letter was obviously written by an adult.

There was argument about whether or not a young mother, who bore the brunt of a collapsed building, sacrificing herself to huddle protectively over her rescued infant had, or had not, typed a message onto the cell phone found alongside her, which said something like, “Dear baby, if you survive, please remember that I love you forever…” Lists after list of places to make contributions appeared.

Day 6: Three kinds of TV programming took over: a mishmash of live reporting from the disaster areas of the now wholly exhausted, depleted villagers, who were either waiting, grieving, or starting to set up camp in tents. As well, there were broadcasts of made-for-TV events from Beijing, with somberly-dressed, highly-cued studio audiences who were singing and donating money. And there were retrospective collages of the previous days’ footage. One showed an entire village buried like Pompeii was, with just one broken wooden-framed roof showing above the fields of mud.

Again, the internet was revealing its quirky side: A firefighter scheduled to be married in Shenyang, northeast of Beijing, found himself in Sichuan instead. He and his bride decided to hold the ceremony anyway – over the internet. The wedding happened via video link-up. The groom reportedly said, “I am fine. I will do my best, I promise. I love you.” They were officially married before the internet connection went down after 18 minutes. On a less joyous side, the government issued an order to suspend online game-playing and entertainment during the upcoming three days of mourning.

Day 7: Chinese TV programming was now fully recovered from the shock of the earthquake, and it was again functioning in lockstep. Early in the morning, all the state-run CCTV channels were broadcasting the same prepared programs simultaneously. Even in the afternoon, most of them continued in synchrony. We saw flags raised, then lowered to half staff; heard announcements for the 3 minutes of nationwide silence planned for exactly one week after the earthquake occurred, at 2:28 p.m. We heard of a rescue of two elderly women, and as if there hadn’t been enough horror, we learned that new landslides had buried hundreds of relief workers.

On the internet, a major blog service and new media provider, Neatease.com, which had been collecting online donations, said it was severing ties with the China Red Cross for their failing to specify how much money had been collected. The China Daily reported that public security authorities were investigating 40 cases of people “spreading rumors” online about the earthquake. Two people were detained.

At 2:28 pm, I went outside our apartment building, alongside a big street and one of the major intersections of Beijing. Hundreds and hundreds of people left their offices, restaurants, and apartments to stand together to show respect with three minutes of silence. Cars stopped, and people got out to stand beside them or to look out over the bridges they were crossing. Jackhammers ceased pounding; cranes stopped moving. People were checking mobile phones for the time. Then, on cue, horns from every single car began to sound. It was not honking, but one long, continuous wail. This apparently happened all across China. Then after three minutes, cars started up again, and jackhammers and bus horns, too. Young women wiped their eyes with the backs of their hands. I thought that, for a few moments, the country had achieved its goal to be a “harmonious society,” just as the Party has been trying to build–but at what a terrible cost.

Read the account of the first five days of news coverage