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Media Toe Line Over Disaster

August 20, 2010

Others question the cause of mudslides in western China
Radio Free Asia (RFA)
August 16, 2010

HONG KONG -- China's official media observed an
official day of mourning for mudslide victims in
the remote western province of Gansu, amid calls
for a transparent investigation into the causes of the disaster.

Mainland newspapers and major websites were
published in black and white on Sunday, with
entertainment programming interrupted on all
channels for the special broadcast. Cultural and
entertainment events were also canceled.

But Song Shinan, a freelance columnist for
Southern Weekend and the popular news portal
Sohu.com, said many people in the media are
asking themselves what the real story was behind the Zhouqu disaster.

"A lot of people in the media are wondering now
to what extent the Zhouqu mudslides were a
natural disaster, and to what extent they were man-made," Song said.

"Many people are thinking that there was a lot of
tree-felling there -- indiscriminate cutting down
of trees—and then the water and soil eroded,
leading to huge mudslides as soon as the rainstorms came."

Following a series of civil disturbances and
disasters that hit China in 2008, Beijing's
powerful central propaganda department has
stepped up its response to major breaking news,
providing fast-paced and detailed coverage from
the official agency Xinhua, but banning any other
media from generating their own reports.

Enforced mourning

Beijing-based legal scholar Zhang Zuhua said the
movie he was watching late on Saturday was suddenly switched off at midnight.

"Across 200 or more channels, it was the same
broadcast," Zhang said. "This government doesn't
want people to actually think about this issue on
the Internet or in the media."

"What sort of government can manage to change all
the channels instantly and simultaneously like
that? Surely only Hitler in the Nazi era," he said.

Sichuan-based writer Ran Yunfei said on the
microblogging service Twitter that the enforced
mourning was in itself an infringement of people's rights.

"Mourning that has no humanity, that lacks the
truth, and that doesn't seek out those
responsible, is the sort of mourning that simply
paves the way for the next disaster," Ran wrote.

Meanwhile, netizens lashed out at President Hu
Jintao, whose smiling photograph was the only
splash of color in the otherwise somber People's Daily newspaper.

The Web address of the newspaper's front page
made the rounds rapidly on social media, with
netizens slamming Hu for "smiling when the people are crying."

Propaganda guidelines

Beijing-based writer Ling Cangzhou said the
incident shows the difference between papers that
deliver news and those that deliver propaganda.

"There are some official newspapers that don't
make decisions on the basis of news; they do it
on the basis of propaganda guidelines," Ling said.

"They wouldn't have felt able to get rid of the
color photograph, nor even to print it in black and white," he said.

Political commentators said someone is trying to make Hu Jintao look bad.

"There are a lot of things under fierce debate
both at home and overseas at the moment," Beijing
Technical University professor Hu Xingdou said.

"That includes whether or not Chinese politics
are currently regressing, and whether there is less and less space for debate."

Rescue efforts halted

In Zhouqu, the thousands of soldiers sent to help
with the rescue operation said they had stopped
digging for survivors in the town, which was
split in two by massive flows of mud, sludge, and
water in the middle of the night, more than a week ago.

Officials said sludge-blocked roads are still
keeping urgent food and medicine from reaching
survivors, and rescuers are now focusing on
clearing the streets of thick mud and draining
floodwaters amid warnings of more torrential rain to come.

The official death toll rose on Monday to 1,254,
with 490 others still listed as missing, the
state Xinhua news agency reported, citing local authorities.

Chen Wanlian, head of the Hong Kong-based aid
organization Social Workers Without Borders, said
survivors in Zhouqu county are still traumatized by the disaster.

"We have come across a large number of victims
who are still visited by sudden flashbacks of
what happened, or of the last time they saw their loved ones," Chen said.

"It might be induced by the actual landslides and
mudslides, or by their reaction to seeing all the dead bodies."

"They are haunted by these images both in their
sleep and in their waking life."

He called on the authorities to pay close
attention to the psychological effects of the
mudslides on the survivors, warning that victims
might need psychological help if their condition doesn't improve.

Zhouqu county Party secretary Fan Wude promised
that the government would not slack off on the rescue operation.

"We will continue to regard rescue work as the
most important task in the battle against the floods," Fan said.

"As long as there is a thread of hope, we won't
treat it lightly, but continue rescue work to
help the victims of this disaster," he said.

Show of respect

Entertainment events at the Shanghai World Expo
were canceled in response to the day of mourning.

"All the outside entertainment and cultural
events have been canceled in accordance with the
national day of mourning for the mudslides in Gansu," an Expo official said.

"Some of the venues have canceled events of their
own accord, as well," he said.

Chinese national flags across the country and at
embassies and consulates abroad flew at half mast
Sunday, official media reported.

Around 10,000 people gathered in Gansu's
provincial capital, Lanzhou, to show respect for
those killed in the mudslide, the Xinhua news agency said.

"All public entertainment activities, such as
movies and karaoke, and online entertainment,
including games and music, were ordered to be suspended," the agency reported.

It said new floods and landslides triggered by
torrential rains over the past week had hit
neighboring Sichuan province, with 120,000 people evacuated from their homes.

Floods and other rain-triggered disasters have
left more than 2,300 people dead and 1,200
missing nationwide this year, not including the mudslide casualties.
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