A recent 7.9 earthquake in China – the most devastating earthquake the country has seen since 1979 – spawned an unexpected and possibly uncontrollable information revolution for Chinese countrymen on the net.
This information revolution, if one could call it that, comes at a heavy price. Thus far, official death counts peg the total number fatalities to be above 34,000, with an additional 245,000 injured. Survivors are using what little they can to send a frenetic level of text and instant messages to their acquaintances, news sources, and microblogging services – and they are doing so, for the most part, without any opposition from the Chinese government.
With the country housing the world’s largest number of internet and mobile phone users, some speculate that the government has little choice -- citizens’ thirst for news and information is so strong that government media and censors may have simply been overwhelmed.
That doesn’t mean the government has completely stepped out, however, Official Chinese media reported the detention of 17 people since the earthquake, who were warned for publishing statements that spread “false information,” took too sensationalistic a stance, or “sapped public confidence.”
Bloggers, often gathering around whatever power source they can find to charge their phones, expressed all manner of sentiment regarding the quake, available aid, and the government’s response. “Why were most of those killed in the earthquake children?” asked one blogger.
“How many donations will really reach the disaster area? This is doubtful,” said another.
Xiao Qiang, a journalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley, stopped short of calling communications unrestricted. “I don't want to use the word transparent, but it's less censored, an almost free flow of discussion,” Qiang said.
One curious manifestation of this newfound freedom is that BBC News Asia openly posts its e-mail address and phone number in its reporting, for use by quake victims who want to submit news and photos. It even goes so far as to include a special link for large uploads, but then warns users from doing so if it places them under “unnecessary risk.”
Despite the government’s hands-off approach, however, a number of online gathering spots still choose to censor content on their own. One post on the popular Tianya online forum saw deletion after complaining about the government’s purportedly tepid response.
“A politician visited Dujiangyan for less than two minutes, and police kept the people away. Most residents don't even know he ever came!” it said. “Who can tell me, where is the food and water that is being promised by the city government. ... I paid 50 kuai (about $7) to get on a vehicle to drive me away from this hell.”
The government may have learned a lesson from recent calamities, and perhaps understands now that acting slowly or covering up important information in the internet age is “a bad idea,” said Xiao.
“The official media has actually been much better at keeping people calm and is surprisingly frank with its reporting,” said expatriate American teacher Kevin Morris, before noting that with the free flow of information comes a surge in dangerous rumors: people “rush out of their homes at the slightest hint of an aftershock or, now … buy as much water as possible because the government is supposedly turning off the water.”