China eases Internet controls, and quake news pours out

McClatchy NewspapersMay 14, 2008 

BEIJING — Amid a national outpouring of grief over Monday's huge earthquake, China has relaxed its grip — perhaps only briefly — on the Internet and some media outlets.

Chinese witnesses to the devastation in Sichuan province have flooded Web sites with homemade videos, filled chat rooms with commentary and let text messages fly from their mobile phones.

The disaster has provided an opportunity for "citizen journalists" to disseminate tidbits of information at a furious pace rarely seen before, experts said.

China's conventional media, initially lagging behind bloggers and users of instant messaging services, also have found greater freedoms, showing often-distressing images of quake-ruined areas without the sanitizing that censors usually demand.

"This is pretty special in terms of letting a lot of reporting happen," said Andrew Lih, a technology author living in Beijing and former scholar of new media at Columbia University.

The death toll from the earthquake, which registered a calamitous 7.9 magnitude, reached 14,866 people Wednesday. As many as 25,000 others may still be buried under the rubble of devastated towns in rugged Sichuan province.

"You just can't hide it. It's a gigantic event. You've got citizens with cell phones with cameras and video filing stuff," Lih said.

Some of the early videos, such as one of a Sichuan University student crouching under a desk as items fly and roll around the dorm room, captured the terror and became hits not only in China but elsewhere as well.

"You can see him telling his roommate, who is under the table, to stay under the table because it's not safe yet," said Graham Webster, who writes a technology blog, Sinobyte, as part of the CNET blog network.

China leads the world for mobile phone and Internet users. Some 574 million Chinese have mobile phones, and 221 million regularly use the Internet, slightly more than in the United States. Also hugely popular are an array of instant-messaging services accessed either by computer or by mobile phone.

Wary of citizen efforts to access sensitive information or conspire against the government, China's one-party state normally employs a vast array of human and electronic means to keep the digital arena sterile, including maintaining barriers to foreign Web sites through what has been dubbed the Great Firewall of China.

But unlike a series of crises earlier this year — such as weeks of snowstorms that paralyzed central China in January and February, or violent unrest among Tibetans in March — the earthquake united the nation in mourning and action.

"That's primarily why you are not seeing a lot of censorship. Everybody's out there doing the same story," said Rebecca MacKinnon, a former CNN correspondent in China who now teaches at the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Center.

The earthquake hit on a workday afternoon, and hundreds of millions of people in China and even in neighboring countries felt its tremors.

Almost instantly, popular Internet portals set up pages for users to post information from text messages received from friends and relatives in Sichuan and to upload video related to the disaster.

China's most popular video-sharing Web site, tudou.com, now has about 1,000 clips related to the quake, including appeals to locate relatives. In one, a forlorn man says: "My parents, relatives and friends are all in Sichuan. But I'm not able to contact them."

Other popular Web sites, including QQ.com and YouTube.com (which is sometimes blocked in China), also have hundreds of uploaded videos about the quake.

A Chinese communal messaging and blogging Web site, fanfou.com, updates user posts about the disaster each minute. Some posts Wednesday afternoon:

Crab on shore: "A friend in Chengdu told me that people there are in a panic to buy oil. Purified water has almost sold out in northwest part of city."

Ahong: "My friend in Chengdu said the city is still shaking! God!"

Huihui: "I'm in contact with colleagues in Mianyang. Luckily they are safe. The communication is much better than yesterday."

The uploading of simple video and flow of messages onto the Internet have put pressure on state-owned media to up their game, experts said.

The Xinhua state news agency has filed more than 250 stories since the quake hit, and the CCTV state television network offered unusual blanket coverage, some of it live, along with Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television.

"Xinhua, Phoenix, CCTV and many other Chinese news organizations have really taken full advantage of the candor Beijing seems to be allowing and encouraging," digital media guru Kaiser Kuo of Ogilvy China, an international marketing and public relations agency, wrote in a blog post.

The sudden freedoms also have opened the door to bogus information and conspiracy theories suggesting that the quake was the latest in a string of unlucky events, beginning with the snowstorms and including an April 28 fatal train collision in Shandong province, that serve as bad omens for the Beijing Summer Olympic Games.

Chang Ping, a senior editor at Southern Metropolis Daily, wrote in a column Tuesday that while some Chinese may be "deliberately blowing things out of proportion," the appetite of most people is for reliable information.

"If the truth is disclosed in a timely manner, then the rumors will cease," he wrote.

ON THE WEB

See video of a Sichuan University student during the quake.

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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