The Chinese media response to yesterday’s Sichuan Province earthquake has been unexpected. When these sorts of things happened in the 80s or the 90s or even two years ago, there was a virtual media blackout.
Not true for this disaster.
Local newspapers were full of stories with precise details. On my television, four stations were broadcasting live footage of the damage and the relief efforts. This is a striking change from the past. As I was watching the coverage, CCTV 4 (central government owned and controlled) ran a story about the response of foreign governments to the disaster. Messages of condolence and offers for aid were published from four countries: Japan, the United States, France and Germany. No such messages were broadcast from Russia or India, two countries bordering on China who are in the best position to provide immediate assistance. Maybe I am reading too much into this, but I see it as a gesture from the central government to portray the four countries mentioned in a positive light after the recent wave of anti-western sentiment related to the Olympics torch relay.
I think it also bears mentioning that the English version of Wikipedia has been unblocked for the past several weeks. There has been no announcement of why this has occurred or for how long it will last. I assume the reason for this unblocking is that Wikipedia is now such a critical source of information that Beijing has determined denying its citizens access to it will just hurt China with little corresponding benefit. If I am correct about this, it should remain open indefinitely.
NOTE: The above is by Steve Dickinson, my law firm’s lead China lawyer, writing from Qingdao.