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Communicating disaster

The government and media responses to the tragic earthquake in Sichuan province show that open access to information has greatly improved in China. But there is still more to communicate, writes Jia Hepeng.

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China has significantly improved its information flow in the wake of the 8.0 magnitude earthquake that hit southwest China’s Sichuan province on May 12, which on May 20 had claimed more than 40,000 lives. 

The 24-hour television news broadcasting and daily newspaper reports on the catastrophe and the rescue efforts, which came 12 days after new regulations on open government information took effect, have been widely praised by scholars and the international media as a symbol of China’s huge progress towards greater openness.

However, before we reach the conclusion that this new ruling has permanently improved the opening of information flows (leaving aside whether this constitutes transparency or not), additional measures and efforts are needed. And some of these measures must be implemented not only by government officials, but also by a wide range of people engaged in the process of communication.

One major such measure is to cover all information, not simply the information that benefits the information producers – primarily the government departments.

In the case of the Wenchuan earthquake, less than half an hour after the quake took place at 2.28pm on May 12, news of the quake from the China Earthquake Administration appeared on major Chinese news portals. It has subsequently been updated regularly on many Chinese websites.

In the following days, journalists were seen accompanying the first batch of rescuers, reporting from the collapsed buildings, the ruined villages, the devastated factories and twisted roads. Access for journalists, including the international media, saw almost no restrictions.

We should praise this lack of restrictions and also note how quickly the government responded to the natural disaster. The free access to information and widespread reporting has helped to show a very positive profile of the government. Hearing the touching and sincere speeches of premier Wen Jiabao at the ruins frequently brought tears to my eyes.

But there is more to communicate. There are many further reflections we should make, including reporting on possible man-made errors. These may include the poor construction of schools in the region and the impacts that the many dams along the Minjiang, or Min River, may have had on landslides caused by the quake.

We currently do not know whether the 100-plus dams along the river, which slowed the water flow and increased the amount of water in the soil and rocks on which urban and rural buildings were erected, have made landslides more common. But thorough research and investigation, as well as a wide-ranging discussion of the issues, are definitely needed.

It is worth mentioning that despite sporadic mentions of the possible impacts of the dams in media reports about the earthquake, no in-depth exploration of the possible links has been made. This is not only because of the lack of reliable information, but also because at the current stage, the consensus among rescue and media workers is to prioritise life-saving efforts, rather than apportioning blame for the disaster.

In one sense, this illustrates that when information flows freely, it will not necessarily lead to anyone making trouble: most people involved in the production of information and its transmission have the necessary ethical and pragmatic standards. And for the same reason, there is no need to worry about possible chaos if post-quake investigations into man-made errors are performed in an open and participatory manner. In a healthy society, public criticism of perceived government faults in various media can lead to constructive solutions, solutions that are often founded on the careful balancing of risks and benefits.

More institutional efforts

Aside from tolerating potentially critical reporting, many other institutional efforts are needed to ensure the free flow of information.

An open information policy does not only mean providing more information in a one-sided way, with no restrictions on access for journalists during natural disasters. Rather, it should represent an institutional way to facilitate the media and the public’s reasonable inquiries. This should include the timely provision of reliable and authoritative experts to reporters, the positive response to and interpretation of controversial information, and the training of officials and scientists to deal with the media. Reporters often demand quick and simple explanations, rather than a whole set of theories.

After the SARS outbreak in 2003, a spokesperson system was established across central and local government departments and major social institutions. While this has significantly improved the amount of information produced by the government, sometimes journalists find it more difficult to get the information they want because officials they approach simply turn to spokespersons, who often do not respond to interview applications, or not in a timely fashion.

A spokesperson is never omniscient, and it is understandable that he or she will not be able to handle all types of information. But they should become a medium to bridge journalists, scientists and officials in their separate institutions – rather than a blockage in the flow of sensitive or elusive information. It is important to note that in a diversified society, media – and the public they should represent – not only receive large amounts of information from the government, but are also a factor that helps the production and flow of essential information that is relevant to the public interest.

This open information flow, however, does not simply emerge from the efforts of government and other institutions. Media, including the press and online publications, should play a role in ensuring the flow of accurate information.

On May 12, minutes after the quake, many Beijing residents were startled to read stories – reportedly originating from people.com.cn -- that a 2 to 6 magnitude earthquake was very likely to hit Beijing between 10pm and midnight that evening.

The authoritative China Earthquake Networks Centre soon denied the rumours and seismologists later explained that the predictions could not have come from a seismologist, because experts classify earthquakes smaller than a magnitude of 5 as small, while those larger than 5 are considered large. No professional seismologist would ever mention earthquakes of such differing magnitudes in the same statement.

We cannot judge whether this rumour was intentionally created or resulted from the misinterpretation of scientific opinion, but we do know that healthy and responsible professionalism for media workers – especially website editors – requires double-checking essential information of this kind with authoritative departments. If they had done so, it would have been easy to avoid such confusing and shocking information being released. It is undeniable that media professionalism needs to be improved, but it is also true that without positive efforts from the officials to deal with sensitive information, media professionalism cannot be cultivated in practice.

It is not easy for senior officials to accept open criticism, for experts involved in information to become adept at communicating with journalists, or for the media to accurately judge all information. But, as the Wenchuan earthquake has proved, opening information flows can bring such benefits that everyone engaged in the process should be working hard to achieve these goals.

Jia Hepeng is the China Regional Coordinator for Science and Development Network (SciDev.Net), a source of free news, views and analysis about science and technology in the developing world, as well as a promoter of science communication in the developing countries.

Homepage photo by wang qian 02/13/86

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


贾鹤鹏在他的评论中提出了有关中国媒体自由发布信息的几个重要问题.在汶川地震后,当局所表现出的公开的姿态非常值得肯定.然而,在允许一些信息正常扩散时,对其他的信息传播要谨慎的控制.中国的媒体已公开讨论了建筑质量低劣的问题,网上的论坛也热烈讨论了所谓”豆腐渣工程”.但是在没有做好疏散计划的情况下发布受损大坝可能带来危险的信息只会造成更多的混乱.在有关洪水的谣言使北川的人们四处奔逃之后,已经出现了恐慌的情况.后来的有关即将发生大的余震的不实报道在一些地方也引发了恐慌情绪.和其他任何政府一样,中国政府需要权衡发布过多信息所带来的风险.水库大坝的状况尚不明朗,评估损坏情况需要时间.仅凭一些无根据的猜测就使数百万的幸存者煌煌不可终日与向他们封锁即将发生危险的消息的罪恶是等同的. 巴金

Information flow

Jia Hepeng raises some important issues with his commentary about the free flow of information in Chinese media. The openness displayed by authorities following the Wenchuan earthquake is indeed commendable. But while some information is rightly disseminated other information should be carefully controlled. Chinese media has openly discussed issues over poorly constructed buildings and internet forums have been buzzing with discussions about so called 'tofu houses'. But releasing information about the possible danger of damaged dams without proper evacuation plans in place would only cause further problems. Panic has already been seen after rumours of floods sent people stampeding away from Beichuan. Later false reports of an impending large aftershock also created panic in some areas. As with any government, the Chinese government has to weigh up the risks of releasing too much information. The status of the dams is far from clear, but it may take time to assess the damage. To worry millions of survivors on unfounded speculation would be as criminal as not letting them know about impending dangers. Ba Jin

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


有关信息与虚假信息,错误信息经常由于连续不断滚动播出新闻时效的需要而发生.新闻记者和政府官员及科学家一样会犯错误.现在要分析地震的发生原因,破坏以及追究责任为时尚早. 巴金

More added

Regards information and disinformation, incorrect facts often occur due to the need for speed in a rolling news environment. Journalists are just as fallible as government officials and scientists. It is also too early to make any analysis of the causes effects of the earthquake and to apportion blame.

Ba Jin

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


我完全赞同巴金的上述评论.我不同意在大灾之时公开所有的信息.在提到没有太多的人去考察大坝的受损情况时,我想我在文中表达了同样的意思.但我认为在救灾结束后,我们需要以开放的态度进一步探讨这个问题.重要的是讨论要在公开的气氛进行.实际上,如果读者记得公众对官方最近承认地震可能对三峡工程有影响时的强烈反响,读者就会认识到公开讨论的重要性.但不幸的是,这样的讨论很快就结束了,甚至发布信息的官员和专家都拒绝再同媒体谈论更多有关问题. 贾鹤鹏

Disaster information

I fully agree with Ba Jin's comments above. I do not mean to release all information during the disaster. I think this is what I have expressed in the article when mentioning not so many people exploring the impacts of dams. But I mean we need an opening attitude to further explore this after the disaster when necessary. It is important to have these discussion performed openly. IN fact, when you remember the initial strong response to the Three Dam's new officials' admitting that the dam could have caused problems, you would think how important the open discussion is. But unfortunately, such discussion soon ends, and even the officials and experts who made the comments refused to talk with journalists any more. Hepeng Jia

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Consesus guidance matters in time of disaster

Since the earthquake struck Wenchuan, the guidance of Chinese news report is to galvanize Chinese people, win the support of overseas audience, as well as highlight the shining merits displayed by Chinese people.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Professional ethics of media

I agree with the points of YuanshuiWanwan above. Actually, I prefer the reports that highlight humanity. However, as the article refers, humanity would be reflected spontaneously from media reports , not necessarily always by the guidance of government. Moreover, I emphasized all the time that the research into negligent act should be started after the earthquake and it should be an open investigation. Messing up the earthquake support is not the purpose of the investigation. Also I believe that in this critical time of supporting earthquake-hit areas, media do not probe into the details of potential fault is not because of government guidance or pressure, but due to media people's conscience and professional ethics.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Building in earthquake zones

You talk of the dangers of placing dams in an earthquake zone and the possible link to the ‘cause’ of earthquakes. This is the first major earthquake in China for many years and besides seismological warnings in the last few years that a large quake could occur near Beichuan, many of these dams were built before any threat could be foreseen. China has no monopoly of building dams in such regions. Many large dams have been built in the seismically active regions of the world, including Japan, the western United States, New Zealand, the Himalayas, and the Middle East. In 1968 the Tokachi earthquake damaged 93 dams in Honshu.
The greater hazard could well have been posed by the placing of nuclear facilities near to known fault lines. The Southwest Institute, in Mianyang is the primary design laboratory for Chinese nuclear weapons and was 149 km from the epicentre. The plutonium production reactor at Guangyuan, China's largest, is some 270 km from the epicentre but only 25 km from major aftershocks. The irresponsibility of placing such installations in earthquake zones is not only seen in China. An earthquake in Japan caused a leak in July 2007. Ba Jin [巴金]

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Natural Disasters

As regards the causal link to the building of dams and subsequent seismic activity, this sounds like unwarranted speculation. Indeed no evidence, anecdotal or otherwise is presented throughout the article. Why people cannot accept that natural disasters are just that; natural. Not caused by man's use of nuclear bombs, building dams, diverting rivers etc. 'Mankind' has contributed to many catastrophes throughout history, but there is a kind of arrogance to suggest he is responsible for everything from earthquake to hurricanes and global climate change. The planet has been through such changes well before man's arrival 10-15 million years ago.

Ba Jin [巴金]

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


感谢巴金提供的宝贵建议. 我想再一次强调的是, 这篇文章的重点是关于信息的传播度, 而不是地震与水坝建设之间的个人的科学见解. 正如我提到过的, 如今还没有确切的证据来证明这两者之间的联系,但我们不希望出现有关水坝的负面批评, 关于其利弊的探讨是值得鼓励的.


Thank you for the valuable guides made by Ba Jin. I want to once again stress that the focus of this article is on the open flow of information rather than individual scientific case linking the dam building and the earthquake destruction. As I have indicated, there is so far no evidence for this link and what we hope is not to criticise the dam building now but to have an open environment to discuss the scientific aspects of the case.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous






China’s environmental crises stem from institutional failures

Speaking of “free flow of information”, you fail to mention either Geng qingguo and Chen yiwen’s prediction of earthquake (respectively made on April 30 and May 3), or the prediction of earthquake in Beichuan by six seismologists published in the July 2007 issue of “Tectonics”, or the earthquake prediction in one issue of “Journal of Catastrophology” in 2006. You just skipped events of importance. I discovered “three principles of environmental crisis in China” on May 30 last year. It showed that China’s institutional bureaucratic inaction combined with information blocking has thwarted efforts to check environmental degradation, and will finally lead to total failure. In the past year a series of disasters, including in turn blue-ear pig disease, snow disaster, hand-foot-mouth disease, controversy over state grain reserve, and Wenchuan earthquake prediction failure, are all due to institutionalized information blocking. --taodax

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



  李勇教授则表示,论文中没有“地壳撞击的能量在四川北川县积累,并将以地震的形式释放出来”这句原话。“我们在论文中只提到了北川断层存在地震发生的可能,至于什么时候地震,会发生多大级别的地震根本没有涉及”,李勇教授表示,对青藏高原东缘和四川盆地西部活动断层的地质研究中国政府一向重视, “中国政府对这一地域的地质研究保持着高度重视的态度,国家自然科学基金委连续六年拿出资金专题来进行龙门山逆冲和走滑作用的研究。说我们国家不重视科学家的研究成果,那绝对是不负责任的说法。”
  “地震预报是世界性的难题,像北川映秀断层这样的活断层在世界各地比比皆是。归根到底,我们知道这类地方早晚肯定会地震。但就目前人类的科技水平来说,何时地震我们却无从知晓”,周荣军研究员遗憾地说道。——Yang bin

Reply to comment by taodax

Regarding the earthquake forcasts published by Tectonics magazine as mentioned by Taodax, I would like to cite a blog to help clarify these arguments.

The academic paper in the magazine, which is entitled "Active tectonics of the Beichuan and Pengguan faults at the eastern margin of the Tibetan Plateau," was written by a number of authors, including Alexander Densmore from Durham University, UK; Michael Ellis from university of Memphis, USA; Professor Yong Li from
Chengdu University, China; Researcher Rongjun Zhou from Seismological Bureau of Sichuan Province.

Blaming the Chinese government for the Wenchuan earthquake due to ignoring scentific reports is baseless, the two Chinese researchers have said.

Researcher Rongjun Zhou says, the academic paper, a joint effort by China, the US and EU, did draw the conclusion that the fault in Yingxiu, Beichuan is active.

He says: "I can responsibly say, the thesis does not make any earthquake prediction. Only in the conclusion it says that these faults have sufficient length to lead to ground vibration.
That is to say that we know that these places are prone to earthquakes, but when will the earthquakes happen, we do not know, because this might happen in a decade or even a hundred years."

Prof. Yong Li says the paper does not mention that the energy as result of tectonic movement was accumulated in Beichuan and released by way of earthquake. It says only that there is possibility that an earthquake might happen along the Beichuan fault, but it does not mention when and how strong the tremor might be.

Yong Li says that the Chinese government has been attaching great importance to the geological research of the active faults at the eastern margin of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and Sichuan basin. So it is irresponsibile to claim that China does not pay attention to research results.

Earthquake prediction is a worldwide challenge, it is common to have active faults similar to that of Beichuan elsewhere in the world.

That is to say we know earthquakes will happen in these areas sooner or later. However, we don't know when they will occure with current technology and scientific levels, says Yong Li.

Yang bin