Communist Party Controls Media Coverage of Yushu Earthquake

April 29, 2010

Communist Party officials reportedly banned journalists from outside Qinghai province from covering the large earthquake that struck the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture on April 14, 2010, although many media appeared to ignore the ban. In addition, a top Party official told Chinese media to propagate several themes in their reporting, including the government's response to the disaster, the "good(ness)" of the Communist Party, and ethnic groups "uniting" in disaster relief. In keeping with the Chinese government's response to other recent disasters, authorities have sought to establish the official narrative through faster reporting that follows the Party line while censoring other sources of information that may be critical of the government's response.

Communist Party propaganda officials reportedly issued a notice banning media from outside Qinghai province from covering a large earthquake that struck the region on April 14, 2010, according to an April 15 South China Morning Post (SCMP) article (subscription required). SCMP said the notice came from the Party's "publicity department," an apparent reference to the Central Propaganda Department. The notice reportedly told newspaper editors to recall journalists sent to the area, citing reasons of safety. SCMP reported that many Chinese media appeared to be ignoring the ban.

Li Changchun Outlines Main Earthquake Themes

Three days after the quake, a top Party official stressed several main themes for news reporting on the earthquake and praised the media for already highlighting such themes in their reporting. On April 17, Li Changchun, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, told propaganda officials and major news representatives that propaganda reporting had been effectively utilized to "create a good public opinion atmosphere" for disaster relief work, according to an April 18 Xinhua article (in Chinese). He told them to continue with propaganda efforts, including showing the "touching deeds of each ethnic group...united in helping each other" and "singing the Communist Party is good, socialism is good...the People's Liberation Army is good, people of all nationalities are good, and the great motherland is good." He praised propaganda officials and major news media for quickly mobilizing and issuing reports that reflected positively on the government and Party's response, from top-level Party concern for disaster victims, to the heroism and courage of Party and government officials, People's Liberation Army, police, firefighters, and others at the scene. The New Yorker journalist Evan Osnos noted in an April 14 blog entry that the central government's news agency, Xinhua, had issued "blanket coverage, which is the part of the new strategy by Chinese authorities to set the narrative of the news before it can take shape on the Web."

Government Agencies Target "Illegal Publications" and Cell Phone and Internet Communications

Meanwhile, government agencies in charge of curbing pornography and regulating the press responded to the earthquake by launching initiatives against "illegal publications" and information transmitted via cell phone or the Internet. According to an April 20 report in China News and Publication Net, the Qinghai office of the "Sweep Away Pornography and Strike Down Illegal Publications Task Force" issued a notice on April 19 calling on officials to strengthen supervision of the "cultural market" to ensure it "remains stable and orderly" during the post-quake period. The Qinghai official interviewed in the article, Zhang Chengwei, reportedly said the notice requires officials to maintain high alert for "illegal publications" and "to make the greatest effort to eliminate negative influences on society, especially taking strict precautions against lawless persons using various types of illegal publications to sow disorder among popular feeling and disturb and destroy anti-quake disaster relief." Zhang also reportedly said officials would block the dissemination of "harmful information" via cell phones and the Internet, including "rumors, obscene or pornographic material, and other harmful information." The article also reported that the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) had stepped up monitoring of the Internet to "maintain the stability of the online environment." The article said that officials will "timely deal with" what they determine to be "false information that has no scientific basis, harms unity, or creates panic." GAPP reportedly also increased communications with key Web sites to ensure that the "Party and government's voice" were reported, according to the article.

The earthquake, which killed more than 2,000 people, struck a predominantly Tibetan area, the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, according to an April 20 Xinhua article and an April 17 New York Times (NYT) article. Relations between the Chinese government and the Tibetan community have been particularly strained following the wave of Tibetan protests that started in March 2008. NYT reported that while the relief effort was "impressive," some of the thousands of monks who traveled to the disaster zone expressed criticism of government action. An April 26 Associated Press report (via NYT) observed that Chinese media "largely played down the role of thousands of Tibetan Buddhist monks who worked alongside soldiers to rescue survivors and dig out the dead" and that "Beijing has sought to take credit for much of the rescue work, portraying relief efforts as a government undertaking."

Radio Free Asia (RFA) also reported on April 27, that authorities in Qinghai detained the Tibetan writer known as Shogdung, whose real name is Tagyal, on April 23, according to Tagyal's wife. The writer recently signed an open letter, along with seven other intellectuals, that suggested that people should avoid sending money for the earthquake directly to officials, who may be corrupt. Tagyal's daughter said that the detention notice accused Tagyal of "sedition [to] split the country." The RFA article also said that Tagyal had published a book earlier this year that was critical of the government's response to the 2008 Tibetan protests.

Chinese officials appear to be managing media coverage of the Yushu earthquake's aftermath in a manner similar to which they managed coverage of the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake, combining selective openness with censorship. Following the 2008 earthquake, the CECC reported that Chinese media coverage was unusually open compared to previous disasters but that authorities had directed the media to emphasize the government's response and to promote national unity. Furthermore, officials sought to rein in press coverage of topics that could taint the public's view of China's response, including allegations of official malfeasance in the collapse of schools.

For more information on the Party's strategy for controlling the news agenda following public emergencies, see pp. 56-57 of the CECC 2009 Annual Report.