Qinghai Earthquake

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Nicole Barnes, a graduate student in the Department of History at UC Irvine, is currently conducting research in Chongqing. Here, she shares her thoughts on the Chinese media’s treatment of the Qinghai earthquake; see “I want to grow up to be a volunteer,” a guest post by Katrina Hamlin at Alec Ash’s blog, Six, for more reflections on the earthquake and youth involvement in relief efforts.

By Nicole Barnes

As the Qinghai earthquake turns into yesterday’s news overseas and begins to sink into the sea of usual economic stories here in China, I would like to reflect upon the position of 10-year-old volunteer Tsering Dan Zhou in earthquake media.

News coverage of the earthquake here in China is impressive in many ways. The programs convey the information that everyone desires, but are also clearly designed to incite sympathy and get people to dig into their wallets for donations to the Chinese Red Cross and other relief agencies. They also pointedly emphasize “social harmony” (shehui hexie 社会和谐, Hu Jintao’s favorite slogan that is a much-repeated mantra throughout the country) between the Tibetan Chinese majority of Yushu county (which, as Robert Barnett pointed out here, is a Tibetan region) and the local Han Chinese. They frequently feature 10-year-old Tsering Dan Zhou, who volunteered as translator for many of his fellow Tibetan-speaking patients who could not otherwise communicate with the Chinese-speaking doctors.

Tsering Dan Zhou

Tsering Dan Zhou and an aid worker

His heroism has been celebrated on many a news program, and he also mounted the stage in a special ceremony to give a tearful and very moving speech of gratitude to all the Chinese people who had come to Yushu to help the earthquake victims. Another Central Chinese Television news program featured a reporter entering one of the canvas tents supplied as temporary housing to four different families, asking the occupants their ethnicity (both Han and Tibetan) and whether or not they shared food and fun with their fellow tent-mates. Their positive responses prompted him to emphasize the “good relations” between the locals.

Doubtless such situations exist, and it is a good thing to point them out. However, this story of ethnic harmony is the only story that is being told. As Bruce Humes pointed out here, comments about anti-Han tensions have been taken out of news commentary.

Such television coverage proffers an unmistakable message of Han charity and good spirit, which is duly appreciated by the “good child” Tibetan who is moved to tears of gratitude. The imagery of the child is significant. As one of my neighbors here in Chongqing said to me, the government looks upon the minorities as children who need both to be well cared for, and also to learn to appreciate the parents’ hard work and sacrifices made on their behalf. In this context, Tsering Dan Zhou is both a heroic young volunteer who deserves to be recognized, and a fortuitous (for the Party) poster child of the Yushu earthquake who is being manipulated by the media. You can see a Chinese-language news feature of him on Sohu’s website.

Yet there is another truth to this situation. Despite some criticism of China’s relief response, thousands of volunteers have gone from sea level to over 11,000 feet to dig people out of the rubble. Many of them had to seek medical assistance when altitude sickness got the best of them, and went back to work after only a short rest. Certainly when compared with the Bush Administration’s tepid response to my own country’s largest natural disaster of recent times, Hurricane Katrina, China’s relief response was extremely rapid, given the remote location of the earthquake zone from most of the country’s population centers. Canvas tents, emergency food supplies, medical supplies, trained rescue workers, and health professionals have been sent from practically every province. Volunteers have gathered donations from citizens on the streets and in shopping plazas all around the country. It takes a massive amount of resource to muster such a relief program, which is much more readily available in a huge nation of 1.3 billion people than it would be if, say, Qinghai province were its own nation. So despite media manipulations, there is still room for gratitude toward the Chinese people, and even for reflection on the advantages of membership in a nation with such a long history of emergency relief and charity (which you can also read about on China Beat,in posts collected at point #8 on this page). As in all situations, there is no single truth about the Yushu earthquake.

Previous pieces by Nicole Barnes for China Beat include a review of Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem and an interview with Antonia Finnane.


At his blog, Bruce Humes compares a Newsweek story on the earthquake’s aftermath, “A Sympathetic Hearing,” with its Chinese translation appearing in Cankao Xiaoxi (参考消息), finding that quite a bit got edited out and altered. Highlights of the Cankao Xiaoxi version, summarized by Humes:

•Quotes from China social commentator Yang Hengjun are cut to ribbons and then spliced, partly to remove references to anti-Tibetan prejudice among Han, arguably fostered by China’s own media coverage (“It’s very hard to see real Tibetans…on TV, they’re dancing all the time, shaking hands with leaders, celebrating, or shown as troublemakers.”)
•Chinese people don’t “Tweet” (even when they do). They “post.” The logic being that, since [Twitter] is blocked by the government, the media should not call attention to those who scale the Great China Firewall and use Twitter anyway.
•Several references to “Chinese” in English have been translated as “Han.”

•David Peng of An Anachronist’s Life has translated Brice Pedroletti’s interview with Robert Barnett about the Qinghai earthquake into Chinese (we ran the interview in English yesterday; a French version is at Le Monde).

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In the aftermath of last week’s earthquake in Qinghai, Brice Pedroletti of Le Monde interviewed (via e-mail) Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University. (Read the interview, and a related story, at Le Monde’s website.) Below, an unedited English version of their interview, which is posted here with permission of both Brice Pedroletti and Robert Barnett.

Interview with Robert Barnett on Yushu’s earthquake political implications (April 16th)

Brice Pedroletti: What can we expect the political mood to be in the Tibetan population as well as among the monks, towards the Chinese authorities, over one year after the dozens of demonstrations that happened in Qinghai (and other bordering Tibetan regions)?

Robert Barnett: Generally, there is likely to be normal gratitude from Tibetans for any help they receive from the Chinese government or Chinese people whatever the past history has been, and this is likely to happen. This is seen as an important opportunity for China, and both the government and ordinary Chinese are seizing this opportunity very consciously to try to repair past wounds. The People’s Daily even called me yesterday just to point this out and to check that I recognised Chinese goodwill. But this relationship is very fragile and if there is any error or cultural insensitivity, the situation could change very easily.  And to be honest, the history of modern Chinese-Tibetan relations is basically a history of cycles of extreme generosity by the Chinese side, as they see it, followed by sometimes extreme tension when there is any criticism or perceived lack of gratitude. First the Chinese gave Tibetans autonomy in 1951, then demanded that Tibet’s prime minister be sacked, leading to major tensions; in 1959 China gave Tibetan peasants land, but then withdrew their rights to practice religion and culture; in 1980 China gave all Tibetans modernization but then said since 1994 that they could not pray to the Dalai Lama or in many cases practice Buddhism at all. So it is not that one should doubt Chinese generosity at all — the problem in the past has been how the Party and the Chinese people respond if there is any criticism.

BP: Which aspects of the rescue operations, and the presence of the army and police, could lead to misunderstandings, tensions and clashes with the local populations?

RB: The first problem is that no rescuers arrived for 6-8 hours even though there is a major military base nearby. This was a serious issue among local people on the first day and [I think] it seems possible it will be remembered.

Now there are many rescuers, it’s very impressive. But there are risks of problems. First, there is not enough food. There have been several fights already and at least five arrests over stampedes by desperate people trying to get food or tents.

Second, there seems to be too little medical treatment and apparently too few doctors. [Editor’s note: as of April 19th, extensive food supplies have reached the main town and the PLA has been able to set up a field hospital.]

Then, the rescuers are concentrating on concrete buildings, for good reasons, but it seems less work is done in the areas of town where just Tibetans live.

There are reports about tensions over funeral practices, which are very important in any culture.

There are [very] serious discrepancies over official numbers of the dead — the Chinese government say 790 have died but many Tibetans say there are 1,000 bodies at Jyeku monastery alone, and many others at other monasteries. [Editor’s note: the official death toll has now been raised to 1944.] We don’t know if the Chinese decision to have political leaders visit the town is helping or not, since probably food and medicine might be seen as more of a priority by some people.

There could also be tensions over the fact that Chinese officials and journalists, and the western journalists who imitate them without reflection, almost never refer to this area as a Tibetan area — which is how it is meant to be officially described by China — but only as “North western China” or “Qinghai” with some “Tibetan majority”. This is like referring to Scotland as “Northern Britain” or to Alaska as “the USA”. It will only inflame tensions. It’s not “Tibet” in Chinese eyes but it is officially recognized as “a Tibetan area” in terms of culture and history and it is important to respect local sentiments by acknowledging this.

BP: It’s been reported that Tibetan monks have acted quickly to help people. Is there a potential here for tensions, as there might be a clash of legitimacy?

RB: The quick action of the monks to try to rescue people has huge potential for cooperation with the government rescuers, but this is a very difficult situation, with many people in desperate pain and suffering, and we can see that the Chinese authorities are very keen to maintain control and desperate to show that it is the state that is the main provider of benefit to Tibetans. So although the Chinese officials will try to cooperate with the monks, the potential for tension and conflict is very high indeed.

BP: Is the policy to settle nomads a matter that could somehow be blamed for aggravating the consequences of the earthquake?

RB: This is a deeply worrying issue, because since 2006 China has forced tens of thousands of Tibetan nomads to abandon their flocks and their tents, where they would have been completely safe, and in effect their culture, because they were made to move to concrete and brick houses on the edges of towns, especially Yushu, usually with no clear prospect of income apart from some compensation fee. This policy, for which there seems to have been little or no public consultation,was very controversial even among some Chinese scholars and will seem more regrettable now.

However, it’s important to point out that Yushu has an unusually good history of relations with the Chinese authorities in the last few years, because local Tibetans were allowed to start NGOs, local schools, a library, a Medical College and an orphanage, with far less interference than in most Tibetan towns in China. Additionally, the authorities did not encourage migration of non-Tibetans into the area. The benefits of this policy showed in the fact that people decided not to stage major protests in Jyeku during March 2008. Because the Chinese authorities allowed this town to develop a certain measure of cultural identity and authority, there is a legacy of goodwill that might help the situation even in this difficult period.

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1. Evan Osnos has a “Letter from China” at his New Yorker blog that addresses the earthquake as “a test of openness,” as rumors spread throughout the country worry that the government is hiding predictions of another quake that will supposedly hit Beijing and Tianjin in the coming weeks. Osnos also links to this page at the Huffington Post, which lists organizations accepting donations to aid in earthquake relief.

2. China Digital Times has centralized its news about the earthquake at this page.

3. Danwei’s “Front Page of the Day” looks at how various Chinese newspapers covered the earthquake.

4. Malcolm Moore of The Guardian is tweeting from Qinghai, as is Al-Jazeera’s Melissa Chan.

5. John Kennedy at Global Voices Online has a thorough look at how both the Chinese media and netizens are responding to the earthquake.