An Official Mourning in China for Quake Victims
Published: April 21, 2010
BEIJING — In an elaborately orchestrated outpouring of grief, China on Wednesday mourned the victims of the earthquake in western Qinghai Province by printing monochromatic newspapers, shutting karaoke parlors and canceling sporting events across the country.
The Lede Blog: Dalai Lama Mourns on Facebook (April 21, 2010)
The quake, which struck a week ago and killed more than 2,000 people, devastated Jiegu, a high-altitude Tibetan city that sits atop a plateau where the thin air and remoteness have bedeviled rescue efforts. More than 12,000 people were injured, and as many as 100,000 survivors have been left homeless.
The national day of grieving on Wednesday, not unlike the one in 2008 for those killed during a devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province, was sweeping and in some cases compulsory.
Movie theaters and bars were forced to close for 24 hours, video games disappeared from the Internet and televised movies and soap operas were abruptly replaced by an emotional news loop produced by the country’s central broadcaster.
Sitting before a backdrop that said “We are together,” newscasters introduced scenes of mourning from across the nation: rows of uniformed police officers clutching candles, disheveled quake survivors weeping in the rubble and hundreds of students in raincoats forming the words “We love Yushu,” the name of the county that was hit hardest by the quake.
The programming was the same on every channel.
On the Internet, people flooded bulletin boards with outpourings of emotion and expressions of solidarity with the stricken. During a three-hour televised gala on Tuesday night, more than $307 million was donated by state-owned enterprises, army units and viewers. A similar telethon for the Sichuan earthquake, by comparison, raised about $214 million.
Although the Qinghai death toll is far smaller than the 90,000 who died in Sichuan, the government’s aggressive relief effort in Jiegu, the breathless coverage in the official media and the organized bereavement underscored the Communist Party’s determination to rally the nation and transform the disaster into a showcase of the party’s benevolence and resolve.
In recent days, Beijing has promised to spend $161 million on relief efforts, and more than 10,000 soldiers, police officers and emergency workers have made the arduous journey to the quake zone, which sits 13,000 feet above sea level. Relief convoys were so thick earlier this week that they caused a 24-hour jam on the only road that links Jiegu to the provincial capital 500 miles away. Would-be volunteers have been ordered to stay away.
Given that most of the victims were ethnic Tibetans, the earthquake has also presented leaders of the party an opportunity to show its softer side to a citizenry that is sometimes at odds with the Han-dominated government in Beijing. Newspaper headlines have emphasized ethnic unity in the face of tragedy. Banners draped across military relief trucks declared, “Whether Han or Tibetan, we are all one family.”
Domestic media coverage has been tightly controlled, with reporters instructed to focus on the heroism of rescue workers and to avoid stories about the thousands of Buddhist monks who dug through debris or handed out food from the trunks of cars. Even the daylong broadcast of mourning on Wednesday excluded any images of the monks, whose crimson-and-marigold robes have been a ubiquitous sight on the streets of Jiegu.
The state-run media has also avoided any discussion of the collapse of at least a dozen school structures that, according to the official tally, left at least 180 students dead or missing.
Although some Chinese reporters who raced to Jiegu after the quake were later instructed to leave, others said they were allowed to work unimpeded. Pang Jiaoming, an investigative journalist, said that there were some restrictions but that those who made it to Jiegu were able to write a wide variety of stories. There were exceptions, however.
“We really had no way to touch on the ethnic and religious issues,” he said.
Foreign reporters who covered the earthquake say they experienced little government interference.
In an interview on Wednesday, Woeser, an influential Tibetan blogger who is in frequent contact with people in the earthquake zone, said several monks told her that they had been ordered to leave Jiegu in recent days, although such accounts could not be immediately confirmed.
“I think the government sees them as competitors for the hearts of the people,” Ms. Woeser said.
Although she acknowledged that government relief efforts had been robust so far, she expressed concern that the lack of transparency might obscure any examination of whether the huge sums of government and donated money reached the survivors. After the Sichuan earthquake, she noted, several critics who pressed the issue of poor school construction, which may have contributed to the deaths of thousands of children, were jailed on charges of state subversion.
“A lot of money was raised with great fanfare after the Sichuan earthquake, but we don’t know how much was spent on the refugees and how much ended up embezzled,” Ms. Woeser said. “I worry the same thing might happen here.”