China’s ‘negative news?’
Only four years ago, Beijing played host to the summer Olympics and amazed the world with its modernity and sophistication. The event was widely seen as China’s coming out party and signaled its readiness to become a major world power.
Visitors were dazzled by the glittering capital and its high-rises. As the official website of the Beijing Olympics stated, the city was “an international metropolis’’ with an “impressive modern skyline, a reflection of its rapid economic development.’’
However, the recent July 20-21 rainstorm, which resulted in the death of 77 people, has provided a glimpse behind the city’s glossy facade. Now, it is clear that while externally the city featured some of the world’s most marvelous architecture, beneath the surface the infrastructure to support these modern buildings was not in place.
Typically, the Communist party’s propaganda apparatus sprang into action, calling for fewer stories on death and destruction and more “positive’’ reporting. Experts, perhaps unaware of the full extent of the damage, declared the emergency response as "effective’’ and, in fact, “even better than that of the United States."
News media was told not to raise questions about whether the government had responded rapidly enough or whether enough was done to prevent the floods.
The censors went so far as to delete eight pages of flood-related coverage in the Southern Weekly, published in Guangdong province.
Despite these steps, or perhaps because of them, postings on the Internet suggested a growing anger on the part of the people, who felt that the government was not doing enough to help flood victims. In fact, some police, instead of helping, were giving tickets to abandoned cars stuck in the water.
The Chinese public was skeptical about what little information the municipal government disclosed, including the death toll, which the authorities insisted for five days was only 37. The government explained that it could not update the death toll because it had not identified all the bodies.
Even the People’s Daily, the Communist party’s flagship newspaper, found this explanation unacceptable. It ran a commentary under the headline “Casualty numbers are not a sensitive topic,’’ and asked why it wasn’t possible to publish a death toll first and report the identities later.
Alluding to the propaganda from authorities about sensitivity to “negative news,’’ the paper said: “People are paying less attention to ‘negative news’’ and more attention to how the government deals with ‘negative news.’”
Clearly, it feared that the government was losing the trust of the people.
After an updated death toll of 77 was released, the official Xinhua news agency quite untypically pointed out that this was not done “until the public and media criticized the government over its failure to release the figures in a more timely manner.’’ It added sarcastically that by then even “the death toll of the city’s livestock had already been calculated and released.’’
It is encouraging that Chinese media is bold enough to criticize officials and to offer them advice. However, this is a case of national-level media criticizing a municipal government. The case of Southern Weekend, meanwhile, suggests that a regional media organ is in no position to resist central propaganda authorities.
One positive sign is that the two highest officials of Beijing municipality, party secretary Guo Jinlong and acting mayor Wang Anshan, both went to Fangshan, the city’s worst hit district, to mourn disaster victims.
Mr. Guo said the disaster had provided an extremely deep lesson that should be remembered forever while Mr. Wang said the municipal government would consider the public’s criticism and “constantly improve its efforts to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.’’
But even if officials are sincere the job ahead is enormous. As the Global Times, affiliated with the People’s Daily, frankly acknowledged, “in terms of drainage technology, China is decades behind developed societies.’’
As visitors were told during the Olympics, Beijing was the capital city during the Liao, Jin, Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties. It is an ancient city whose drainage system was built during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) periods.
The system still holds up well in the Forbidden City, home to China’s emperors, but it cannot withstand a major challenge. Fixing drainage pipes isn’t romantic but it is vital if Beijing is to present itself to the world as a modern capital. This is one problem that can’t be swept under the carpet.
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator based in Hong Kong. Email the writer at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1.