In the wake of the catastrophic earthquake in central China last week, the western media has reported on the role that new media – blogs, mobile phones, and instant messages – have played in communicating news of the earthquake around China. These communications mark a vast change in the flow of information surrounding a disaster from previous disasters in China.
From Cara Anna of the Associated Press:
Almost nonstop, the uncensored opinions of Chinese citizens are popping up online, sent by text and instant message across a country shaken by its worst earthquake in three decades.
“Why were most of those killed in the earthquake children?” one post asked Thursday on FanFou, a microblogging site.
“How many donations will really reach the disaster area? This is doubtful,” read another.
China is now home to the world’s largest number of Internet and mobile phone users, and their hunger for quake news is forcing the government to let information flow in ways it hasn’t before.
A fast-moving network of text messages, instant messages and blogs has been a powerful source of firsthand accounts of the disaster, as well as pleas for help and even passionate criticism of rescue efforts.
“I don’t want to use the word transparent, but it’s less censored, an almost free flow of discussion,” said Xiao Qiang, a journalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of the China Internet Project, which monitors and translates Chinese Web sites.
China is well known for controlling the flow of information.
“We didn’t know that hundreds of thousands of lives passed away during the Tangshan earthquake in 1976 until many years after the disaster took place,” sociologist Zheng Yefu said in a commentary last week in the Southern Metropolis News.
But word about Monday’s magnitude 7.9 quake spread quickly on Web sites and microblogging services, in which users share short bursts of information through text and instant messages. The services also publish the messages online.
“It all depends on the users; we don’t edit it,” FanFou founder Wang Xin said. “We just gather their words together.”
A string of crises over the last few months — including crippling snowstorms and Tibetan protests — has taught the government a few lessons, Berkeley’s Xiao said.
Government officials held a rare, real-time online exchange with ordinary Chinese on Friday to answer angry questions about why so many schools collapsed in the quake.
“They understand better now that to react slowly or to cover up in the Internet age is a bad idea,” Xiao said in a telephone interview.
But the government is still monitoring the online conversation. Seventeen people have been detained since the earthquake, warned or forced to write apologies for online messages that “spread false information, made sensational statements and sapped public confidence,” the state-run news agency, Xinhua, reported Thursday.
Even as recently as the SARS crisis, the Chinese government did not seem to understand the beneficial role of an uncensored press. Instead of allowing the media to report on the public health crisis, Chinese officials censored reports of the disease. This new media, particularly text messages via mobile communications devices, exist in great degree outside of the government’s ability to censor. NDN has written about the impact these devices are having on Chinese political movements and the power of mobile bring about major societal changes – from governance to public health.
The impact that these mobile phones has on communications in China will be far reaching. The Chinese government has been realizing that a free(er) press and communications flow serves an important role in distributing reliable information in the wake of disasters. While the blogging and texting has been valuable, rumors circulated wildly in these unrestricted media. The introduction of these technologies to the information market in China will have a profound effect on its openness going forward, as new media will doubtless improve both government responsiveness and the ability of, and necessity for, traditional media to function.