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Earthquake in China opens Internet blogs

by on21 May 2008


Censorship limited by government

Internet bloggers in the PRC have for the first time ever been given the liberty to publish uncensored details about the devastating 7.9 magnitude earthquake that struck hardest in the Sichuan province and killed more than 40,000 Chinese citizens. The government ordered all flags to be flown at half mast for the earthquake victims and a three-day national mourning period for the entire country.

A blogger reported that this marks the first time ever that the government has ordered any sort of recognition for the deaths of ordinary Chinese citizens. This openness of reporting information and the lack of censorship as to its contents is a sharp contrast to the media lockdown when the government sent PRC troops to Tibet to harshly quash protests and arrest protesters and Buddhist monks.

Some have speculated that the PRC wants to avoid the strong criticism its actions generated by the way it overreacted to and handled the protests in Tibet, and that it is attempting to appear more open to the outside world and transparent to internal criticism, particularly since the summer Olympics will soon be held there in September.

A law Professor at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, Daniel Chow, who focuses on Chinese matters, said that the PRC government has typically locked down all information pertaining to disasters and kept that information from leaving the country until quite some time after the event occurred.

"China has come under a lot of criticism lately because of the Tibet protests," Chow said. "This is a way for China to get some favorable international publicity. The Chinese government wants to show that it is caring for its people and is responding well to a disaster." Chow indicated that he does not think the Web openness and leniency will be a lasting trend, however. "Does this mean a fundamental shift in policy toward opening up the Internet? I don't think so," he said. "If we didn't have the Olympics and the whole Tibet protest issue problem there would not be as much transparency and there would not be the loosening of the control on the Internet."

Another U.S. Professor, Anne Donohue, a Journalism Professor from Boston University, is currently working at the People’s University in Beijing.  She stated that, "And it's not just the blogs that are wide open. State-controlled newspapers and television are giving this wall-to-wall coverage with generally thorough reporting, including body counts, concerns about school building safety, nuclear facilities and dams. This is not a political story, although it could turn out to have political overtones if the schools, dams or nuclear facilities are found to not be up to safe building codes," Donohue added. "But this is not Tibet, or Taiwan or Tiananmen Square -- the three T's that are not discussed much and about which there is less freedom to write, report or blog."

Donohue noted that a new Chinese law went into effect May 1st that is supposed to require more online transparency on issues that are of concern to the public. It does not, however, apply to information categorized as "state secrets."

"The Chinese people are more sophisticated, plugged in to an online world. This would be difficult to control, so the government is just going with it," she added. "In the initial hours, journalists were told not to go to the affected areas, and they went anyway, taking a big risk. But once the genie was out of the bottle, it was hard to put it back in. And the government did nothing to stop them."

However, the PRC government has not completely eased up on its online monitoring. Seventeen people have reported as detained or warned for writing online messages that "spread false information, made sensational statements and sapped public confidence." In addition, the government announced yesterday that all Chinese entertainment Web sites would be shut down until the three-day mourning period ends.

Last modified on 21 May 2008
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