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Several stories out in the past few days about China’s vigorous response and openness after the Sichuan earthquake on May 12. BBC’s Quentin Somerville says “it is one of the most open and speedy responses to an emergency he has ever seen from Chinese state media.”

The New York Times comments about an ‘uncensored’ rescue, comparing the Chinese response to the Myanmar response, and also citing the Chinese government’s need for a PR win after months of conflict over Tibet. The article ties an open response to the Chinese government desire to look strong before the world and it’s own people.

It’s worth noting a few other points – unlike other Chinese public health disasters such as SARS, or environmental disasters such as the polluting of the Songhua River in 2005, where media blackouts and coverups later forced the Chinese government into a defensive posture, an earthquake is an act of nature clearly beyond the Chinese government’s control. It therefore pays to have media actively covering the crisis, and the fact of people in distress, in China as elsewhere, have the effect of drawing people together. Adding a delay of the Olympic torch run – a sign of humility – adds up to a powerful message any government would want on display, that the government honors and protects its people. So calling it an ‘uncensored’ event is overstatement. Rather, as with certain protests, such as the anti-Japanese demonstrations in 2005, or more recent pro-China demonstrations over Tibet violence, public attitudes, and especially nationalism, accord for a time with the interests of the Chinese government. This shouldn’t be mistaken for a fundamental realignment of Chinese media, but a calibration.

Which is not to downplay the real desire of Chinese media to cover this story well. As with so many questions about China, the nuance is the key. Two more points add to this:

A recent Chinese law requires public officials to provide information to media during natural disasters, also reported in the NY Times, and reported more fully by Globalsecurity.org, and by the Chinese Embassy to the US. However, this law isn’t just about public information; it’s also about the prohibition of spreading of false information, which puts an onus on both public officials and journalists, and discusses criminal charges for failure to comply. The embassy’s press release says:

The new law would help minimize losses and prevent minor mishaps from turning into major public crises, lawmakers said.

It bans the fabrication and spreading of false information on accidents and disasters and requires governments to provide accurate and timely information.

“People’s governments in charge of coping with an emergency should provide coordinated, accurate and timely information on the emergency and its development,” it says.

The law also states that “units and individuals are prohibited from fabricating or spreading false information regarding emergencies and government efforts to cope with emergencies”.

Offenders will be warned, it says. Media organizations or web companies could lose their business licenses if their offences lead to serious consequences.

Government officials will incur administrative punishment for providing inaccurate information, says the law.

Behavior that contravenes public security management rules or criminal statutes will be prosecuted, it says.

China continues to arrest and imprison journalists. The International Federation of Journalists today issued a further condemnation of this policy, and calling for the release of Qi Chonghuai and He Yanjie in Shandong. Clearly, evidence that China continues its balancing act with media, incrementally allowing some freedoms, but cracking down hard on those who go too far, and using these crackdowns to instill fear other media.

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