Published May 26, 2008
BEICHUAN, China – Rows of body bags were laid out along streets for all to see. Sobbing parents furious about shoddily built schools that collapsed and killed thousands of children were able to speak freely. Military helicopters carried reporters to tour the disaster zone.
The earthquake that flattened a wide swath of central Sichuan province May 12 has been a historic event for journalism in China. Never before have the nation's leaders allowed foreign reporters so much freedom to cover a major disaster.
Chinese leaders haven't fully explained the new openness, and periods of thaw can be brief here. Only time will tell if it is a real policy shift — a bold break from the Communist Party's traditional tight control on the release of news, particularly bad news.
It might just be a response to the disaster's exceptional magnitude — the death toll may exceed 80,000 and 5 million people are homeless — and the government's pledge to be more open before the Beijing Olympics.
"We have adopted an open policy because we think it was not only the disaster for Chinese people, but the people of the world," Premier Wen Jiabao said during a weekend tour of the quake zone. "Our spirit of putting people above all and our open policy will not change."
The contrast to previous disasters is stark.
In the past, regions ravaged by floods, earthquakes, typhoons and other catastrophes were mostly sealed off to foreign media. Information from the no-go zones was treated like state secrets. Reporters trying to cover disasters without official permission — almost never granted — were stopped by police. Notebooks were seized, and photo files deleted.
When Associated Press journalists went to cover a quake that struck the western region of Xinjiang in 2003, police waited for them in their hotel lobby and interrogated them about their reporting. As recently as two months ago, security officials in Sichuan set up roadblocks and turned back journalists trying to cover protests by ethnic Tibetans in the region.
Since the quake, however, journalists generally have been free to go where they want. In the flattened city of Beichuan, reporters were allowed to walk down a block lined with 60 body bags. Soldiers only asked them not to take photos, citing respect for the dead.
AP journalists wandered around hospitals in the provincial capital, Chengdu, where patients were wrapped in bloody bandages and had their heads shaved so deep cuts could be stitched. The reporters stood next to rescue workers on mountain slopes looking for survivors and roamed around refugee camps in the city of Mianyang.
A crowd of weeping parents in Wufu made allegations to a reporter that their children were killed in a shoddily built school that collapsed. No official "media minders" were there to remind the parents that they could be punished for criticizing the government.
If there were checkpoints, journalists were usually allowed through, even welcomed. Police and soldiers, who reporters would normally stay away from because of the threat of arrest, willingly gave newsmen directions to some of the worst hit areas.
As a result, the extensive media coverage both within China and without has helped stir up huge amounts of goodwill.
Thousands of volunteers from across China have streamed to Sichuan to help, and billions of dollars worth of donations have been collected. Foreign help — a rarity in a nation that prides itself on not needing handouts — has been welcomed in the form of rescue teams, medical experts and tents.
The only official bump in the freewheeling coverage came a few days after the quake, when authorities began requiring journalists to apply for special credentials. The process took just five minutes, with provincial officials asking only for mobile phone, passport and press card numbers.
Foreign reporters even tagged along when Wen toured the area with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The press pack was put on one of the Russian-made helicopters used by the military, usually one of the most media shy parts of the Chinese system.
The flight wasn't just a novelty for the reporters. The flight crew seemed equally fascinated. One of the navigators sent around a blank sheet of paper asking all the foreign reporters to sign it. When they asked why, he smiled and said he wanted the signatures as a souvenir.
Still, some local officials played by the old rules. Three days after the quake, an AP reporter and photographer were detained in the town of Luoshui where they saw soldiers digging a mass burial pit. A group of men held the reporters in the courtyard of a government building surrounded by a metal fence. Soldiers stood around the perimeter, and local people stopped to take photos of the detainees with their mobile phones.
The men refused to explain the detention or identify themselves. One said, "I'm a Chinese citizen and it's the right of all Chinese citizens to monitor the foreign media." In China, plainclothes police are often used to follow journalists.
After three hours, an official from the foreign affairs office in the nearby city of Shifang came to their rescue. "There has been a little misunderstanding. You're free to leave now," said the woman, who would only give her surname, Cheng, and wouldn't comment further.
Until about a year ago, government rules required foreign journalists to apply for permission to travel for reporting beyond their home bases, usually Beijing or Shanghai, the commercial capital.
Some of the restrictions were relaxed in early 2007 as part of China's pledge to increase media freedom — a promise that helped Beijing get picked as host for the Olympics this August. But foreign journalists and monitoring groups still complain of harassment and occasional detentions.
Rebecca MacKinnon, a journalism professor at the University of Hong Kong, said China's leaders may have decided to be more open in Sichuan because they realized it would be too difficult to control press coverage of such a mammoth disaster.
She also said the leadership — concerned about its image before the Olympics — may have learned a lesson from Myanmar's ruling junta, which has received worldwide scorn for limiting foreign aid for victims of a devastating cyclone.
"They discovered how much more sympathy they get and how good they look when they open up access," said MacKinnon, a former TV journalist who covered China for CNN in 1992-2001.
She also said that unlike the recent unrest in Tibet — which involves a complex debate about history and politics — the quake involves a simple story line. "It's a massive disaster. Everyone is overwhelmed. They're doing what they can do," she said.
The next big test may come when reporters begin investigating allegations of poor construction, official corruption and mismanagement in the quake zone, complaints that have led to scattered protests.
There were signs last week that some of the old censorship and intimidation tactics might be creeping back. In Juyuan, a town where a school collapsed and killed most of its 900 students, a woman began complaining about local corruption to an AP reporter while she walked around the school's rubble holding a picture of her dead son.
Another woman approached and began taking pictures. Identifying herself only as a "volunteer," she kept whispering to the distraught mother, "Don't criticize the government."