Reporting Bad News in China

The leadership gives media unusual freedom.

Earthquake survivors are transferred to a temporary shelter.

Earthquake survivors are transferred to a temporary shelter.

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BEIJING—When an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale rocked Sichuan province on Monday, leveling entire villages and killing thousands of people, the jolt was felt as far away as Hanoi, Vietnam, and Bangkok, Thailand. The Chinese leadership immediately kicked off a rescue effort, deploying thousands of police and military. And Premier Wen Jiabao flew that evening to the stricken area in southwest China, donned a hardhat, and held hands with sobbing victims. In one clip on CCTV, the largest Chinese network, the premier 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 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. The official Xinhua News Agency published updated death tolls in English and Chinese on its website, and newspapers and TV 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.

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.

The publicity-shy Communist Party has a well-earned reputation for trying to block, or at least hinder, reporting of negative news. 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 premier didn't make it to the affected areas until more than two weeks after the storms began.

There may be several reasons for the new approach. One is the international condemnation of Burma for refusing foreign assistance after a cyclone left up to 100,000 people dead or injured. After the quake, Beijing was quick to accept overseas relief supplies but declined proposals for foreign rescue teams—a decision the government may regret. Beijing has also taken an international beating over its handling of violent protests in Tibet last month and it's handling of the international Olympic torch relay, which was greeted by protesters almost every step along the way.

With the 2008 Olympics less than three months off, the government can't afford another public relations disaster.

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. 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. 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.

"The prevailing line in the government is clearly that mobilizing support and resources means allowing a wider range of information than it usually does," says Russell Leigh Moses, a political scientist based in Beijing.

Only the next crisis will tell if the government has really had a change of heart.