After giving news outlets a fairly loose rein on covering the earthquake, the Chinese government’s propaganda vehicle has whirred into action, pushing for emphasis on upbeat stories and national unity.

JohnChowDotCom twitters from China: “TV has nothing but news stories. Mostly interviews from survivors. One man lasted 110 hours by drinking his pee and eating paper.”

The government crackdown, noted by Crikey on Monday, continues. Many news editors actually believe that censorship is appropriate (for now), says The New York Times today. One Shanghai editor told the paper: “Whether it’s time to ask questions, such as why most of the buildings that collapsed were school buildings, the conclusion of our newspaper is that, the moment for reflection has not come yet.”

Last week, the current issue of South Wind View (南风窗) asked “Why did schools collapse so badly?”: It contains a quote which probably could be used to sum up the entire situation, writes blogger Danwei: “Low-quality school buildings are a common phenomenon across the country. It’s a question of design and workmanship, and the earthquake just violently threw this problem up in front of our faces.”

Would this article be printed this week? Possibly not.

And national grief is doing part of the work for the government in keeping criticism at bay. “During this period of intense emotions and patriotism, tolerance of dissent and criticism is very, very low,” says Joseph Cheng, professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong.

In Tiananmen Square, once the site of anti-government protests, the chant of “Go, China, Go” broke out after a 3-minute silence showing the power of fresh patriotism.

But, as ABC’s AM program reports this morning, the government has lost some of its control:  

…while the Government appears to have tamed the official media after the first week of allowing it full freedom, it’s having less success with the bloggers or ‘netizens’ as they call themselves here. Some have began compiling lists of schools which collapsed. They’re asking uncomfortable questions about why the country’s much touted seismological agency provided no warning at all. And some have even dared to question the Government-controlled media’s unrelenting portrayal of Premier Wen Jiabao as the compassionate leader of the nation’s rescue efforts.

When China’s last big earthquake hit in 1976, these types of rumours were spread by word of mouth.

Unofficial reports slipped through, writes WG Huang for the Chicago Tribune. “One time, I heard from a friend whose mother was a nurse and had been summoned to Tangshan that tens of thousands of people had been killed. When I told my father, he immediately warned me not to share the information with others. He was worried that I could get myself into political trouble for spreading rumors. The result of all this secrecy and effort to control rumors was, of course, that people relied heavily on rumors, even to make critical decisions.”

These days, the Chinese whispering continues but is more likely to happen via twitter and blogs, perhaps with a greater chance for accuracy, with questions like: “Why were most of those killed in the earthquake children?” and “How many donations will really reach the disaster area? This is doubtful” on FanFou.

Global Voices Online, one of the best sources rounding-up and translating coverage, has a couple of interesting angles from within China, including the boost for Japanese-China relations and the role of Coke:

How the earthquake is helping smooth over anti Japan sentiment: The largest ever dispatch of aid to China from Japan took place last week when Japanese rescue teams were dispatched to Chongqing, an area of China with deep-rooted anti-Japan sentiments. After several days of delays, 61 Japanese earthquake experts from the Hyper Rescue team of the Tokyo Fire Department were allowed to enter China on Thursday, in addition to an initial $4.8 million in cash and goods. In total only two countries, Japan and Taiwan, were allowed to enter China by the Chinese government. Japan in particular was selected for its extensive experience and technical expertise in handling earthquakes, recently in disasters such as the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995… [this is a quote from a Chinese bulletin board] “I used to hate Japanese. They once killed countless numbers of Chinese. But that was an earlier age. There aren’t that many people in the rescue team, but I really want to thank them. I hope that permanent friendly relations between China and Japan can be developed. Thank you, Japanese friends.” — Chris Salzberg, CVO

The Coke factor (how long til the Coke PR department spins this?): What could have supported those victims’ will of survival after being buried under the relic for tens of hours, in a confined space, without sustenance, without a slight voice from outside, and without any light? It might be just a bottle of Coke. The boy, Xue-Xiao, 17, was finally rescued out after 80 hours stranded. His first words are: “I want a Coke…” “Sure, soon!” rescuers answered. “And cool Coke.” He added. — Bob Chen, CVO

Meanwhile, Timesonline reporter Michael Sheridan discusses Mao’s legacy and how it’s played into the latest disaster, centred on Sichuan:

The political risk for the Communist party is likely to intensify as hard questions are asked about the central planning policies that put so many people and industrial plants in an earthquake zone. The factories and towns hidden away in Sichuan’s valleys are the legacy of one of Mao Tse-tung’s least-known but most grandiose projects.

Fearing a nuclear attack by the United States or the Soviet Union, Mao ordered the construction of a redoubt to shelter China’s defence industry. He gave the task to Deng Xiaoping, a native of Sichuan. Starting in the 1950s, Deng built an impregnable arsenal hidden by the mountains.

He built tunnels, dammed rivers, threw railways across gorges, drove highways through the wilderness, installed power stations, nuclear weapons plants, steelworks, chemical factories and arms workshops, some hidden in caverns. Standards were shoddy and hundreds died as “worker-martyrs”. The project was bigger than the Roosevelt New Deal or Stalin’s first five-year plan and it consumed between 40% and 45% of China’s capital budget from 1965-75.

It was all done in total secrecy. “Populations were moved from Shanghai and Tianjin into towns that appeared on no maps,” wrote Harrison Salisbury in his dual biography of Mao and Deng. Nobody dared question either man about the decision to locate these industries and all their people along an active tectonic boundary.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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