China's Earthquake Coverage More Open But Not Uncensored

July 30, 2008

Numerous reports in foreign media of China's initial response to the May 12 Sichuan earthquake described unusual media openness and government candor when compared to previous disasters. From the beginning, however, Communist Party and government officials directed Chinese media to emphasize the government's proactive response to the disaster and to focus on positive stories that promoted national unity and stability.

Numerous reports in foreign media of China's initial response to the May 12 Sichuan earthquake described unusual media openness and government candor when compared to previous disasters. From the beginning, however, Communist Party and government officials directed Chinese media to emphasize the government's proactive response to the disaster and to focus on positive stories that promoted national unity and stability. Furthermore, China has quickly sought to rein in press coverage of topics that could taint the public's view of China's response, including allegations of official malfeasance leading to the collapse of a large number of schools. After parents of some of the thousands of children killed in the collapses began protests, officials reportedly ordered Chinese media to curb reporting on the issue, forcibly removed parents from protest sites, and briefly held foreign reporters trying to cover the protests in custody.

In the days following the quake, the New York Times (NYT) (May 14), Wall Street Journal (WSJ) (May 14), Associated Press (AP) (May 14, May 26), and Los Angeles Times (LAT) (May 23), among other media outlets, reported that Chinese television aired extensive and graphic live coverage from disaster areas, foreign reporters had largely unfettered access to disaster areas, and Xinhua, the central government's news agency, initially issued updates by the minute. The May 14 NYT article said "the rescue effort playing nonstop on Chinese television is remarkable for a country that has a history of concealing the scope of natural calamities," and according to the May 26 AP article, "[n]ever before have the nation's leaders allowed foreign reporters so much freedom to cover a major disaster." The reports noted that China's response following the Sichuan earthquake compared favorably to the devastating 1976 Tangshan earthquake, the 2003 SARS outbreak, Tibetan protests that began in March, and a major train collision in April - instances where officials sought to conceal casualty totals or severely limit media coverage.

Nevertheless, both Chinese and foreign media reports have indicated that since the disaster struck, Chinese officials have used their control over the media to shape post-quake coverage to their advantage. Hours after the quake, the Party's Central Propaganda Department issued a directive prohibiting media from sending reporters to the disaster areas and ordering them to only run reports from the central television station and news agency, according to a May 18 NYT article and the May 23 LAT article. Li Changchun, a high-ranking member of the Politburo, called on China's press to propagandize the government's rescue efforts and emphasize positive propaganda, unity, and stability, according to May 14 and May 17 Xinhua articles. As a result, China's domestic media have largely shied away from "negative reports," according to a May 24 article in The Age (Australia). There are indications, however, that Chinese journalists are testing the boundaries. So many journalists ignored the original order not to travel to the quake zones that it was later rescinded, according to the May 18 NYT article. And progressive Chinese media have reported on protests by angry parents seeking official accountability for poorly constructed schools (Southern Metropolitan Daily, May 26), and called for better earthquake-resistance standards for schools and enhanced supervision in the construction process (Caijing, May 22).

It is unclear why China has allowed this limited openness and more recent signs indicate that China has already begun to pull back. China has sought to play up what it calls "unprecedented transparency" following the earthquake as being the result of reforms that have taken place gradually in recent years, culminating most recently in open government regulations that went into effect on May 1, according to a May 26 Xinhua special report. Other observers have argued, however, that factors outside of China's control may have played a more important role. One media observer noted in a May 23 Washington Times (WT) article that censors may have been hampered because "news was spreading too quickly through online channels and the impact of the tragedy ran too deep." Others have noted that the nature of the event made it easier for China to respond with openness. "It is important to note that this was a natural disaster. People are united behind the government rescue effort so allowing a freer flow of information is politically beneficial for the censors," said Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project and professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, according to the WT article. China's rapid and extensive lockdown on information following the recent Tibetan protests (see previous CECC analyses: 1, 2, 3), for example, suggests that the Party's willingness to allow "openness" will depend heavily on context. The Financial Times (June 1) and AP (June 3, via Guardian) reported that officials recently ordered media to rein in coverage of the school collapses and prevented foreign journalists from reporting as officials forcibly broke up a protest by grieving parents.

Timeline of Major Events Affecting Media Coverage and Free Flow of Information

  • MAY 12
    • A then-reported 7.8 magnitude earthquake (later revised to 8.0) strikes Wenchuan County, Sichuan province at 2:28 p.m., according to a May 12 Xinhua article. Premier Wen Jiabao immediately flies to the disaster zone.
    • Within 20 minutes of the quake, officials announce its location and magnitude, and within hours death counts begin, and are frequently updated, according to a May 15 Xinhua article. Information about the quake, some in the form of rumors, spreads quickly over the Internet and cell phones, according to a May 13 WSJ article.
    • Just hours after the quake, the Central Propaganda Department (CPD) issues an order barring media from sending reporters to the disaster areas, according to a May 18 NYT article. So many journalists ignore the order that by May 14 the CPD changes tack, saying reporters can go but must travel with rescue teams, even though many journalists have already been reporting live from the disaster areas.
    • Li Changchun, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, convenes a "special meeting" of propaganda officials, and calls on news media to "consciously implement the spirit of the central authorities," "firmly grasp the correct direction of public opinion," and "persist in giving priority to unity, stability, encouragement, and positive propaganda," according to a May 14 Xinhua article.

    MAY 13

    • Xinhua reports that the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) has issued an urgent circular strengthening monitoring of cell phones and the Internet to ensure "correct guidance of public opinion."

    MAY 14-15

    • Foreign media reports note the unusual candor of Chinese media coverage. China's central television station, CCTV, issues 24-hour coverage of the quake, and newspapers devote at least half their pages to the disaster, according to a May 15 AP article. Coverage is unusually candid, showing buried bodies, wounded victims, and grief-stricken family members. Despite openness, foreign media note heavy emphasis on coverage of Premier Wen's presence in the disaster areas. Foreign reporters appear to enjoy unfettered access, according to the May 14 NYT article. A few journalists later report blocked access or harassment in quake areas, according to a May 19 Foreign Correspondents Club of China statement.
    • In a May 14 commentary, the official China Daily questions whether the central government had spent enough to ensure the safety of school buildings, noting that in some areas deaths in schools constituted the majority of reported fatalities.
    • On May 15, the MPS announces that 17 citizens were punished, including detentions in two cases, for circulating "malicious rumors" about the quake on the Internet, according to a May 15 Xinhua article.

    MAY 16

    • Li Changchun visits the offices of Xinhua and CCTV, and outlines how reporters should be covering the earthquake, according to a May 17 Xinhua article. He said they should propagandize the important policies being implemented by the Party and central government as well as the positive actions of officials at all levels and the People's Liberation Army, and "show the great spiritual strength of the Chinese nation in uniting as one."

    MAY 18

    MAY 20

    • Agence France-Presse reports that the Chinese press' relatively positive coverage of the government's response to the disaster stood in contrast to greater criticism circulating on the Internet.
    • Foreign media observe that Chinese media coverage turns less aggressive. Newspapers begin to publish more official Xinhua stories, according to a May 20 WSJ article.

    MAY 22

    • The Communist Party's People's Daily reports the investigation and handling of 55 cases of "starting rumors" on the Internet about the earthquake.

    MAY 24

    • An examination of Chinese media reporting following the quake by The Age (Australia) finds that most stories focused on "non-threatening storylines - extraordinary rescues, miraculous survivals...and the laudable efforts of Premier Wen Jiabao...." The article notes that Chinese analysts and journalists interviewed said "there has been little analysis of earthquake prevention measures or apparently substandard construction of schools and other buildings, and few negative reports."

    JUNE 1

    • The Financial Times reports that sometime late in the week of May 25, Chinese journalists received a directive telling them to avoid coverage of the school collapses.

    JUNE 3

    • AP reports (via NYT) that Chinese police forcibly disperse a protest of more than 100 parents of children killed in a school collapse in the Sichuan city of Dujiangyan and briefly hold an AP reporter and two photographers in custody to prevent them from reporting the event.

For more information on freedom of expression in China, see Section II - Freedom of Expression, in the CECC's 2007 Annual Report.