The Handbook for Foreign Journalists in China was the first official document I received on landing in Beijing in April. By page 61, I had decided to pin all hopes on the curiously worded Article 6 in the Decree No. 477 of the State Council: “to interview organisations or individuals in China, foreign journalists need only to obtain their prior consent.” But Article 9 loomed on page 62. These regulations that came into effect in January 2007, it said, would expire on October 17, 2008.
Despite the tight leash on the media in China, however, there are signs of a country being compelled to change. Inside the 98-year-old Tsinghua University campus built on former Qing dynasty royal gardens in northwest Beijing, professors are closely following China’s lines of crisis communication with the world since the fateful afternoon of May 12. For the first time, says Professor Shi Anbin, the government and the media have lived up to the three principles of crisis communication, a subject the media studies scholar specialises in — ‘Tell the truth. Tell it first. Tell it fast.’
In the aftermath of the worst earthquake to hammer China in 32 years, the ruling Communist Party surprised its own people by executing those principles with its first official media report out almost 10 minutes after the quake, and a gush of information on the death toll which spared no horrific details of thousands of lives lost and the many towns wiped out. Nor was there a cover-up on delays in rescue and relief as storms and landslides blocked troops of the world’s largest army from reaching the epicentre.
While its close ally Myanmar banned journalists from its cyclone-ravaged countryside, China let the media into quake zones and its foreign ministry spokesman even said ‘take care’. A new regulation on disclosure of information in China, which has been effective from May 1, stresses voluntary disclosure by the government on previously taboo topics like food safety, public health and, in this case, emergency plans, early warnings and ‘unexpected public situations’. Few expected the rules to be executed just 12 days later to this extent.
It’s an extraordinary turnaround since 1976, when a severe earthquake flattened Tanshang, east of Beijing, killing 242,000 people. Then, the public did not know the actual death toll until years later. China had refused international aid and clamped down on the media coverage except for words wrapped in propaganda. In recent history, China initially tried to cover-up the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) in 2003, allowing the media access only after international criticism and embarrassing the media coverage.
At the Tsinghua campus — from where President Hu Jintao graduated as a hydraulic engineer in the sixties — some academicians are not shy to speak up about why China is slowly learning to open up as it transforms in a fast-globalising world. It is likely, they say, that China’s leadership has been silently picking up pointers to improve its public image after grappling with international criticism and protests over its clampdown on Tibet and with the Beijing Olympics less than 100 days away. “The Tibet issue was a lesson,” says Shi, adding that he believes that China told the truth about Tibet but not first and fast enough.
In early March, when the worst anti-China unrest since two decades broke out across Tibet, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) said it had learned of over 50 incidents of ‘interference’ in the work of international media trying to report on Tibetan communities. “Foreign correspondents have been detained, prevented from conducting interviews, searched and subjected to the confiscation or destruction of reporting materials,” stated an April 30 FCCC statement.
Hosting the Olympics has helped. But there’s an “overall trend” towards information transparency with respect to disasters, says Dali Yang, a China-observer and Director of the East Asian Institute in Singapore. He doesn’t think this is the first time that China has opened up the media access, but the government’s post-quake response has “reinforced” the trend. “Such transparency helps the government in conveying what it does, provides essential information, wins China international sympathy and can alleviate a variety of problems that tend to plague a government that hides such a tragic event,” he says.
Did the backlash faced by Myanmar influence China? “Probably somewhat,” he thinks, but adds that China would “most likely done essentially the same with or without the Myanmar example”.
Everyone interested in China wants to know whether this change will last only until the Olympics. There is a long way to go. In the FCCC statement in April, some reporters covering China described how even access to spokespersons is a “major obstacle”. Another described that “even for casual inquiries, such as how many seats in a stadium, you have to go through a huge rigmarole”. But the first steps towards fixing up a more open ‘communications line’ may have just been taken.