A snapshot of May 14 editorials on the Sichuan earthquake

By David Bandurski — In the recent two to three years, editorial pages have become one of the most dynamic parts of China’s changing media landscape. Writers of current affairs editorials, or shiping (时评), often come from widely varying backgrounds, from professional journalists to lawyers, businesspeople and engaged citizens. The following is a quick look at some of the editorials cropping up in today’s newspapers dealing with the earthquake in Sichuan.

Before we get on with our summaries, however, it’s worth noting that Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao (联合早报) is reporting “unverified” news that China’s propaganda department has issued a directive on earthquake coverage, calling for use of only official reports from Xinhua News Agency, CCTV and other central party media. We can only hope that this is not the case, as it would contradict the apparent move toward more open coverage over the last 36 hours and quickly put an end to hopes for a more competitive news environment.

Will China’s commercial media (and most of its top professional journalists) be shut out? Tomorrow may tell.

Turning to the editorials, in a piece called “Please Turn the Media Lens More to the Disaster Victims” in today’s Yangtse Evening Post, writer Tao Duanfang (陶短房) urges against the official news style, in which news stories focus less on information about the disaster and more on the deeds of government leaders. The most high-profile example of this, naturally, would be Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to the scene of the earthquake. The only true main characters in this drama right now, says Tao, should be those who have been affected:

Not long after the disaster occurred, governments at various levels and other relevant parties made their urgent responses — the rescue teams organized and moved out, the gathering of aid supplies and their delivery began, information about the disaster began to come out, and relevant leaders quickly went themselves to the front lines to inspect and direct the rescue effort. These measures were timely and appropriate, and they worked toward containing the losses caused by the earthquake and rapid rendering of help and comfort to those affected.

At this time, though, while of course people care about which leaders are heading to which disaster-struck areas, they care much more about how many buildings were destroyed, how many people died, and how many people are still trapped. At this time, of course people care about whether certain army units have been dispatched, about which relevant [government] departments are buzzing with activity, and about the deeds of heroes. But they care much more about where those affected by the disaster are to live, what they are to eat, how many have no home to return to. At this time, of course people are willing to listen to this or that government office talking about what they have already or are planning to do for the disaster victims and the disaster area. But they want more to hear those affected speak for themselves and say what they need the world outside to do for them. At this time, the disaster area and the disaster victims are the only true main characters. Only by listening more to the voices of these characters, by looking at their images, can those of us thousands or tens of thousands of miles distant truly understand what we can do to help, and what we should do.

In Guangzhou’s New Express (新快报), a commercial spin-off of the official Guangzhou Daily, lawyer Gu Zexu (顾则徐) argues in an editorial called “Rapidly Open the Door to International Assistance” that China should move quickly to take advantage of foreign assistance, which it has up to now been reluctant to accept:

Unlike the disaster relief effort that followed the Spring Festival snowstorms, Premier Wen Jiabao arrived in the Sichuan disaster area soon after the earthquake, and this means that the various disaster relief forces are under unified leadership and therefore wrangling can be lessened and the effectiveness of rescue and relief work raised.

But I believe this is not enough. Even though China has a large and efficient political disaster response mechanism (政治性应急机制) and capacity, it does not necessarily have sufficiently effective mechanisms for dealing with natural disasters and humanitarian crises. In such a situation, opening the door to international assistance is an option that should be seriously considered . . .

The recent typhoon disaster in Burma offers a very real lesson. Because the Burmese junta lacks the resources to do relief work on its own and has been slow in accepting international assistance, the progress of the rescue and relief effort has suffered, with even more disastrous consequences for those impacted [by the typhoon]. I think that in midst of this disaster, China’s government should put the lives of the people above all other principles, gathering and using all resources available, both domestic and foreign. The resolve to open up our doors to international assistance would dramatically help the disaster relief effort.

The writer then outlines what he sees as the three benefits of accepting international assistance: 1) raising the efficiency of the relief effort, 2) receiving aid and charitable donations from overseas, 3) learning the most advanced techniques for rescue and disaster relief.

In its lead editorial, or shelun (社论), the Information Times (信息时报) expressed its disappointment today that “monopoly state enterprises” had not been stepping up to the plate and offering assistance for the rescue and relief effort, in stark contrast to the generosity of the general public and Chinese celebrities:

The Wenchuan earthquake has drawn the attention of the whole nation, and people all over the country have moved quickly to extend a helping hand to the devastated disaster area. [Film star] Andy Lau (刘德华), [film director] Feng Xiaogang (冯小刚) and other famous artists have not only donated their own money but also urged their professions to follow suit. In addition, a number of well-known companies have given to the relief effort, among them Suning (苏宁电器), which has given five million yuan . . .

The tide of donations from the entertainment industry and companies allows us to see the responsibility of “social citizens” (社会公民). Under their example, I trust that the whole country will see one after another wave of giving to the disaster area. But in the midst of this tide of giving, what we have not seen is the shadow of our monopoly state enterprises (垄断国企), and we can only say that this is extremely regrettable. Naturally, we may begin to see these monopolies giving assistance, but the fact that we have not seen them stepping up with the proper sense of duty is something that leaves a bad taste in our mouths.

[Posted by David Bandurski, May 14, 2008, 6:15pm HK]

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