Guest Post: How the Chinese Internet Becomes a Platform for Earthquake Grief (A local perspective)

Jeremiah: Paul Denlinger of Beijing is an internet expert on China, and I’ve offered him the opportunity to help share from an insiders perspective. Keeping in the theme of internet strategy and how the web impacts business, (and in this case the world) Paul, a resident of China, shares his perspective.

Although a long post, please show him the same respect that you do for me.

Chinese Internet Becomes Platform for Earthquake Grief

Guest post by Paul Denlinger, Beijing, China

The Sichuan earthquake of May 12, which first registered as 7.8 on the Richter scale, has now been revised upwards to 8.0. As of Thursday May 22 in Beijing, the number of fatalities has so far reached more than 52,000, missing are 30,000, while injured are 400,000 and the number of homeless has reached 5 million. The final death toll is projected to be around 72,000. The Chinese government has appealed to foreign governments for aid and assistance, and Russia, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong have all sent teams to aid in the search for survivors in the rubble, and for body recovery. With the huge number of refugees, there is also a severe shortage of tents to house them, and many foreign governments including the US, UK, Russia, Germany and Italy have all sent cargo aircraft to Chengdu, the nearest major city, to drop off needed supplies.

The Chinese government reacted swiftly to the tragedy, with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao flying to Sichuan the afternoon of the earthquake. He won wide praise for his swift action, and was photographed and taped talking and holding newly-orphaned children, telling them that the government would care for them, and would be committed to helping them rebuild their lives. He was photographed weeping when the bodies of two young children were removed from the rubble of their collapsed school. After several days of non-stop work directing rescue teams, making sure that they got all the help they needed, the exhausted Wen returned to Beijing, and was replaced by Chinese president Hu Jintao, who in one of the more memorable scenes, was seen holding an 8-year old boy, and telling his family that the government was committed to helping them rebuild, and to finding the bodies of their loved ones.

Military rescue teams from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were dispatched from all of China’s 31 provinces to aid in the rescue effort. The first two days after the earthquake there was heavy rain in the area, and in a few instances, paratroopers were dropped into stranded villages to help the local inhabitants. In one instance a dangerous night drop was made into an isolated village, and the mission was so high-risk that the 15 men were required to write their wills before departure. There continue to be mudslides in the area, and the government says that so far more than 200 volunteers have been killed in mudslides, trying to get supplies to the villagers.

The earthquake struck in a mountainous region of Sichuan, at the foothill of the mountains which run to the west and become the Tibetan plateau. A mix of Han Chinese and ethnic Tibetans live in the area, mostly in small villages surrounded by mountains. The main earthquake struck at 2:28PM, and an estimated 7,000 school classrooms collapsed. Schools were particularly hard-hit since many of the primary school students were taking their afternoon naps, or had just started their afternoon classes. There are many stories of children escaping from their classrooms to their sports field, only to be buried alive when the mountain surrounding the school collapsed on them. For many of their families, their bodies will never be recovered. In other instances, parents rushed to their children’s schools to dig out their children, only to find them dead. In some of the more horrifying stories, the quake was so severe that mountains which were separated by valleys with villages in-between moved together, completely obliterating the villages and their inhabitants.

In most of these village households, three generations of families live together, including grandparents, children and grandchildren, as is the usual Chinese custom. In many of the households, the parents of the children are migrant workers in Shanghai, Beijing and the more prosperous cities of China’s east coast. Upon hearing of the tragedy, and being unable to connect with their families on their mobile phones, they took trains back to Sichuan to search for their families. Many returned only to find that their whole household had been wiped out, or to find that their only child had already been buried in a mass grave. In some cases, there was a single survivor, with no surviving relatives. Most of these people were severely injured, and on learning that their families had been wiped out, said that they too wanted to die.

But then something curious started to happen, something which hadn’t happened before in Chinese society. Strangers started going to hospitals in Chongqing and Chengdu, and started caring for people whom they were not related to, effectively adopting them. All during last week, the news started to spread, not only of the need to send supplies, but also to care for the survivors. Stories of this kind spread quickly though China’s officially-controlled newspapers and television, and spread even more quickly on the Internet, especially Chinese BBSes such as Tianya, which are the most popular community tool for unofficial news. Other popular outlets for information are Twitter and a Chinese version of Twitter, Fanfou. The most popular IM client in China is QQ, which has more than 500 million registered users.

The news spread very quickly about the scale of the disaster, and strangers started organizing themselves online to take supplies to the disaster area. Google China and Baidu, China’s leading search engine, soon created specialized searches for relatives. Then on the weekend of May 17 and 18, some Chinese started designing online memorial sites where visitors could sign a book and give a white flower in mourning for the earthquake victims. These sites were designed and set up by volunteers without any payment from the government or corporations. As of May 22, one site had more than 262,000 unique visitors.

Late on the evening of May 18 Beijing time, the Chinese government announced that there would be three official days of mourning, from May 19-21, and recommending that game and entertainment sites shut down during the mourning period. Robert Scoble interpreted this event out of context and turned a human tragedy into a political event, narrowly framing it in terms of politics and human rights, and suggested that this meant that the Chinese government was enforcing a government crackdown during the mourning period, as could be evidenced from his comments, and those of his followers, on his Friendfeed account.

In fact, the Chinese government’s Central Publicity Department, which is in charge of content on the officially controlled media, was playing a catchup game with China’s Internet population, which is now the largest in the world, as well as the general population of China. As people learned more about the scope of the tragedy, they wanted to do more, and even more, the government sensed that they needed a public outlet to channel their grievance. The problem was that, in China’s long history, there never has been a defined way to remember and mourn ordinary citizens who have been killed in an enormous natural disaster. For this reason, the government prescribed that all cars and citizens would stop where they were on May 19 at 2:28PM, exactly one week to the day from the time of the earthquake, and while air raid alarms sounded, they would stand still for three minutes. They did this on Monday, as can be seen in this Youtube video and this interesting account of the event. Many websites have voluntarily changed their colors to black and white during the mourning period, while some have added the Chinese character for "mourning" to their websites, and many Chinese have chosen to wear black and white during the mourning period. All of this has been done without government orders of any kind; it has all been organized on the Internet through BBSes and people who voluntarily spread the message. Many other sites have set up donation badges to facilitate online donations to help organizations, and there have been blood drives as well. There have also been a few sites, including Google and Baidu, which have created people search sites, so that relatives can look for their loved ones. Most newspapers and magazines, all of which are controlled by the government, have moved to publishing in black and white only.

While younger Chinese have turned to the Internet, older Chinese have devoured huge amounts of TV programming and newspapers, all of which are state-owned and are now fully devoted to reporting the aftermath of the disaster. Unlike in the past, all of this reporting about the disaster is what the audience demands from the bottom up, not what the government wants to give to the people in a top-down fashion. In order to show the people that the government is on top of things and doing its job, state-owned news agencies have been working round the clock to provide news about the situation in Sichuan. When not reporting about rescues, stories detailing the amount of goods and supplies being sent to Sichuan from the various cities and provinces of China form a solid wall of disaster reporting. In keeping with the Chinese affinity for numerical data, precise numbers of boxes sent, trucks dispatched, tons of supplies sent, trains sent, etc. are all reported in these stories. In contrast with the past, Chinese government officials have promised a higher degree of transparency and accountability to the people. Many Chinese have also started openly asking questions on the Internet and on television and radio, including why so many schools collapsed, and if dams in the region may have caused soil erosion.

Whether it is television, print or the Internet, there are endless stories of people living just because they ran a different direction from the rest of their family, or because someone left home on a shopping errand, only to find their home flattened and all their family killed by falling debris. Ever since the end of WWII, China and Japan have had a rocky relationship, but the dispatch of Japanese rescuers to aid the rescue process, has won significant praise and goodwill from Chinese netizens.

Maybe most interesting has been a publicly-driven drive for corporate donations of money and supplies to the earthquake victims. Sina, one of China’s three leading portals, has set up a corporate donation page which lists amounts Chinese corporations have given (minimum amount for listing: 10 million yuan or US$1.4 million). As of the afternoon of May 21 Beijing time, total corporate donations listed on the page had come to 5.58 billion yuan or US$797 million. On the Chinese Internet, netizens have been especially loud in driving corporations to donate more, and in some cases, have publicly attacked corporations for being too cheap in their donation amounts. In most cases, the criticized companies have quickly upped their donation amounts in reaction. Corporations have also looked sideways to see how much their market competitors have donated, and have matched or trumped their donations, sometimes setting off donation bid wars to win praise from the public and favorable PR.

For the past ten days, Chinese have spent most of their time glued to their TV sets or on the Internet, collecting every scrap of information about this huge human tragedy. The outpouring of emotion has been enormous. As the mourning period draws to a close, the next phase will begin, that of reconstruction. Without a doubt, the Chinese Internet will continue to play a major role.

Paul Denlinger is an Internet consultant based in Beijing who publishes his own blog at the China Vortex.

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6 Replies to “Guest Post: How the Chinese Internet Becomes a Platform for Earthquake Grief (A local perspective)”

  1. A great post in time.

    Here are more related posts:

    Yeeyan Interview: Another Bridge between East and West

    “Yeeyan is a bridge of KNOWLEDGE in Chinese and other languages. I found 140 results about earthquake (å°é‡) on Yeeyan 9 days after the earthquake, and more than 100 translators joined a translation group. These articles include the reports by western medias (such as CNN, Newsweek, BBC, etc), knowledge about earthquake forecast, rescue, disease prevention. For example, one translator finished by World Health Organization 4 day after the earthquake. Webtizens have helped to spread the word about these great resources on what to do scientifically after the disaster. (see here, here, here and here)”

    And Fuzheado’s new flickr set about Chinese Major websites screenshots on May 20

  2. an excellent articles, thanks!

    Jeremiah, long time no see, I found your public speaking on social computing in June, good luck!

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