Thursday, May 15, 2008

NYT Seconds My China-Bizarro China Assessment…oops?

The New York Times chimes in with A Rescue in China, Uncensored, a very favorable “news analysis” (NYT’s own words) on the Chinese government’s response to the earthquake and its public communications efforts, complete with a brief comparison with the Myanmar authorities.

I now have to rethink my own assessment a little, though. Today’s hardcopy Yomiuri carries an article that explains the heavy hand of the Chinese authorities behind the intensive domestic reporting. A near-translation of the passage carrying the salient facts follows:

On May 12, Li Zhangchun, fifth ranked member of the Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee [ed. more importantly, “Propaganda Chief”] chaired an emergency meeting and issued the guideline for reporting on the earthquake, namely: “Firmly maintain stability and solidarity and focus on positive reporting”. The following day, the government issued an emergency directive to the media, urging them to “guide (public opinion) in a positive direction”, communicate the Party and the government’s “considerateness” to the victims, and calm the public. According to a Chinese newspaper report, the major newspapers adopted a decision to emphasize the Party center and the government’s focus on the lives of the people, expeditious rescue operations, the military and police who do not shirk self-sacrifice, etc.

The Yomiuri’s own assessment is summed up by the article’s headline and subtitle: (headline) Stability Top Priority (subtitle) Chinese Government—Strict Control over Reporting.

Now we know why we’re getting so much footage and photos of a caring Prime Minister Wen from Shinhwa. Yes, all governments try to game the system, manipulate the press. You got to see a lot of President Bush after Hurricane Katrina (some of which he must have regretted). But in liberal democracies, the authorities can’t issue directives, and newspaper associations won’t oblige. The silver lining is that it’s being done openly, and we get to see it.

The foreign media still appear to be operating freely, though, and survivors are talking to them. The articles show growing despair and anger, and even some civil disobedience, including sporadic reports of locals assaulting and looting supply vehicles and fighting over water supplies. This contrasts strongly with Burma, where the BBC correspondent (native English speaker) must hide his identity to report. To the extent that information comes out (and it does), it’s an oversight. The Myanmar authorities’ indifference, incompetence and corruption conspire to produce evidence to refute their bland reassurances.

In sum, I think that NYT and I should have given more qualified descriptions of the situation in China.

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