By Qian Gang — In the “great earthquake” of May 12, just one year ago, we saw the combined devastation of a natural disaster and social tensions in a way that was unprecedented. Chinese news reports on this major story unfolded in a complicated environment, and it is impossible to render a simple verdict about media coverage.
As rescue and relief efforts began, the release of information prompted the international news media to note a “rare openness” in news coverage within China. Subsequent restrictions on reporting of shoddy school construction told a very different story.
A Wildfire is Extinguished
The phenomenon of school collapses drew attention on the very day the earthquake struck. Wenchuan was pinpointed as the epicenter of the quake, and rescue teams and journalists sought to make their way there at the first available moment. But because the roads were destroyed, their way was blocked at the city of Dujiangyan.
In Dujiangyan, where the quake activity had not been the most serious, what everyone witnessed was not damage to residential buildings but rather the complete collapse of schools, which had resulted in a disproportionate loss of life among students and teachers. In a news extra in the early morning hours of May 13, Southern Metropolis Daily gave prominent place to a photo essay dispatched by their reporter on the scene in Dujiangyan. It was called “Masses of Students are Buried at Dujiangyan.”


[ABOVE: Screenshot of online coverage of a Southern Metropolis Daily report on school collapses in Dujiangyan, Sichuan, May 13, 2008.]

Early on May 13, the official Xinhua News Agency also released a dispatch called, “Quake Causes the Death of Around 400 Students at a Middle School in Sichuan’s Qingchuan County in Guangyuan Prefecture” [Video of CCTV coverage here].
The bulk of news reports about school collapses came in the first three weeks following the quake. During this time there were in fact bans from the Central Propaganda Department. On May 15 the propaganda department had ordered that “no specific examples of rescue efforts at schools be raised in reports on the Wenchuan earthquake rescue.” But not unlike the propaganda department order that media not dispatch journalists to the quake zone, this order quickly became a worthless scrap of paper.
By May 18, school collapses all over the disaster zone had been reported by Chinese media – in Dujiangyan City, Beichuan County, Wenchuan County, Shifang City, Qingchuan County, Mianzhu County and Pingwu County. In the vast majority of cases these schools had collapsed due to structural weaknesses and had been laid flat within moments. These collapsed structures offered a stark contrast to neighboring buildings, including many previously designated by the government as unsound, which had sustained little damage.
Not to be bested by commercial media such as Southern Metropolis Daily, party mouthpieces like People’s Daily Online, Xinhua Online and Sichuan Television also paid attention to the problem of school collapses in earlier reports. On May 16, People’s Daily Online arranged an online chat between Web users and officials and scholars from the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Housing and the China Earthquake Administration. During that session, officials said that “there were certainly quality issues behind the collapse of school buildings and we will conduct a strict and uncompromising investigation.”
The second wave of reporting on the issue of school collapses came after the national period of mourning from May 19 to 21. For three consecutive days, Southern Metropolis Daily ran a series of reports called “Xue Shang” (学殇), or “The Premature Death of Our Students.” The reports exposed even more bitter truths to the public, reporting how the party secretary of Mianzu City prostrated himself before the parents of primary school students as they petitioned for redress of wrongs. This prompted other news reports, and also resulted in the tightening of controls on reporting about school collapses.
But then came an even more powerful third wave of reporting on the issue. On May 29, Southern Weekend ran a whole series of reports – “Ministry of Housing Experts Rule Juyuan Middle School in Dujiangyan a Substandard Structure: An Investigation Into the Collapse of Dujiangyan’s Juyuan Middle School,” “Mianzhu Fuxin Second Primary: How the Collapsed School Buildings Were Constructed,” “Dongqi Middle School: Could Tragedy Have Been Averted?” On June 6, the weekly newsmagazine Outlook ran a report called, “An Investigation Into School Collapses in the Quake Zone: Why Did Old Residential Structures Stand?” On June 9, Caijing magazine published its own report, “School Buildings, A Chronicle of Concern.”
It was at this time that the Central Propaganda Department and local propaganda offices issued comprehensive bans on further coverage of the issue of school collapses. Caijing’s report was the last to be openly published, and it was also the most serious report.


[ABOVE: Screenshot of online coverage of the Caijing magazine report, “School Buildings, A Chronicle of Concern,” June 2008.]

Using the WiseNews Chinese language database to search for all mainland Chinese articles with the keywords “earthquake” and “school collapse” over the past year, you can spot a clear downward trend in the number of reports from late May onward. As the one-month anniversary of the earthquake approached, reports on shoddy school construction were virtually nonexistent.
On June 25, media in Sichuan province ran an article called “The Earthquake is the Culprit in the Destruction of Buildings: Survivors Must Look Rationally to the Future.” At this point, journalists from other provinces were pulled from the earthquake zone under a compulsory order. Media such as Southern Metropolis Daily and Southern Weekend that had reported on the problem of school collapses were severely criticized and eventually subjected to purges of editorial staff.
There have been three notable official overtures on the issue of shoddy school construction. The first came in the early days of the relief effort, the second on the occasion of the six-month anniversary, and the third during the “two meetings” of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress earlier this year. In each instance the resolve to seek out the truth and hold people accountable has weakened.
In the earliest phase Chinese media used circuitous reporting tactics to circumvent propaganda bans. Xinhua News Agency reporter Zhu Yu (朱玉), for example, wrote a report called “The Disaster Prevention Strategy of a Rural Schoolmaster in the Quake Zone.” The report managed to underscore broader failures of government preparedness by glorifying a local school official in Sichuan who had for many years worked privately to reinforce his own classrooms. When the earthquake struck his school was not damaged. The Xinhua report was fiercely criticized by the Central Propaganda Department when it came out on May 23 .
By the time the Southern Metropolis Daily was criticized by authorities in late May 2008 the issue of school collapses was effectively untouchable. But media still seized the opportunity afforded by International Children’s Day on June 1 to honor students who had died.
The next major report skirting the edge of this issue came many months later, on February 6, 2009, as China Economic Times, a newspaper published by the Development Research Center of the State Council, ran a report by veteran investigative reporter and CMP fellow Wang Keqin (王克勤) called, “An Investigation Into the Collapse of the Bank of China Building in Mianzhu.” The report, which exposed construction quality problems very reminiscent of those behind school collapses, was again fiercely criticized by the Central Propaganda Department, which quickly issued an order for the recall of newspaper copies that had already been distributed.
Investigations into the collapse of schools in the quake zone did not cease despite restrictions. Even as the rubble was cleared away — and with it much critical evidence — the parents of students who died in the quake and other citizens in the disaster zone used their own cameras and mobile phones to document the scene. Many journalists from outside China sought at great risk to film documentaries in the quake zone, and many were detained by authorities, but at least three documentaries were completed.
Sichuanese writer and activist Tan Zuoren (谭作人) made scores of trips into the disaster zone, and an incomplete independent citizen survey of 64 schools that he released confirmed the details of at least 5,761 students that had died in the quake, the vast majority due to shoddy school buildings. On March 28, Tan Zuoren was arrested by authorities in Sichuan under charges of “inciting subversion of state power.” Tan’s independent numbers offer an interesting counterpoint to official numbers released this week saying 5,335 students died in the quake.
Beijing artist Ai Weiwei has also sought to conduct a citizen investigation online. His blog entries on his citizen investigation have been deleted as soon as they appear, but he has continued to make updates and re-posts. Up to April 27 he had already gathered specific information about 4,481 students who died in the quake.
The Political Logic of News Controls
News openness in the early stages of the earthquake relief effort was something to which we all bore witness. Controls were relaxed even on the issue of school collapse in the very early stages, and we saw party media like Xinhua News Agency and People’s Daily Online jumping into the fray. Early on, Chinese authorities also indicated that there would certainly be investigations into problems in school construction.
The environment steadily tightened, however, and there were three principal reasons for this. First and foremost, news reports on school collapses were implicating more and more officials. Many officials who previously served in areas impacted by the quake had now moved on to higher positions in the official hierarchy. In one of the more outstanding examples, Sichuan’s provincial propaganda chief, the very man whose responsibility it was to control media in the quake region, had served previously as the party secretary of Dujiangyan.
Former Sichuan officials were also now serving within the central party leadership in Beijing. News reports touching on official negligence were clearly disadvantageous to their “political survival.” And so the tangled fabric of power within the vast bureaucracy quickly knotted together in a recognition of mutual interests, and this force worked against the resolve at the center to get behind the problem of school collapses.
Secondly, the collapse of schools in the quake zone quickly set off a massive grassroots rights defense movement (民间维权行动). And thirdly, the school collapse issue touched on even deeper and more sensitive nerves — the upcoming Beijing Olympic Games and China’s international reputation. A top Sichuan education official, Lin Qiang (林强), even resigned his role as an Olympic torch bearer, saying in an interview with Southern Weekend on May 23, 2008, that “the truth is more important than glory.”
In the official response to reporting on the Sichuan earthquake, we also saw signs of emerging changes to media control and censorship in China, what we have called at the China Media Project “Control 2.0” (传媒控制升级版). It is fair to say that media controls in mainland China have never slackened, but “control” has undergone many changes, not just in methods and tactics but also in the standards applied to control — What should be controlled and what not? What should be controlled more strictly? What areas can be loosened?
In the past controls were largely ideological in nature. Propaganda organs of the party routinely punished media in their capacity as the guardians of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought. But in the post-totalitarian era in China, in the era of what we can call “market Leninism,” ideology has faded, and as the power of the central party has waned, the power of local interest groups is on the rise.
The primary impetus for media control today is now direct and personal political interest. Officials and interest groups at various levels often manipulate propaganda offices to stifle news media, and the most effective charge they now levy against them is that they are “harmful to the national interest” or “damaging to social stability.” This is why, in the case of the Sichuan earthquake, we saw on the one hand that news reports on the disaster situation itself were far richer than we saw for previous major disasters (such as the quake at Tangshan), and on the other hand that reports on school collapses were suppressed. These reports on school collapses exposed the corrupt and negligent behavior of officials, and so were a direct challenge to their political interests.

[Posted by David Bandurski, May 7, 2009, 1:54pm HK]

David Bandurski

CMP Director

Latest Articles