The earthquake in Beijing yesterday probably reminded many people of the earthquake in Tanghshan (close to Beijing), this month exactly 30 years ago. While I was living in Beijing I never encoutered an earthquake, but several of my former colleagues told me about that time (because I was curious about it once, and asked them about it). They are now all in their mid-thirties, and so they were little kids at that time. Some lived on the streets for weeks (at least in their memories) after the quake, that killed 240,000 people.
Jeroen Berghuis (who now lives in New York but is visting Beijing) had an interesting post about the quake yesterday. A quote from him in his typical cynical style, about the coverage in the China Daily:
“Premier Wen Jiabao and Vice-Premier Hui Liangyu, immediately after the earthquake, instructed the seismological departments to closely monitor and analyze seismological situation to ensure the safety of the people and property, particularly around Beijing.”
Yes, ‘Wen the man” and “Howling Hui” picked up the phone together (speaker phone I assume?) and called the dumbstruck receptionist at the seismological department… Too bad the quake took place at 11:58 local time, which means that the whole seismo department was out to lunch…
And the typical “people don’t worry, we have it all under control” message ends the article:
“Experts in Beijing said there won’t be any devastating earthquakes in Beijing in the near future and urged residents to keep calm. And Tianjin experts, after the quake, also said the city will not have any major quakes in the near future.”
How do they know these things! Wonderful clever people. Too bad that 30 years ago they didn’t see the Tangshan City (also in Hebei province) quake coming. That killed 240,000 people…
Jeremy Goldkorn from Danwei.org noted that the new proposed Chinese law that forbids reporting of sudden news items could lead to lots of rumours through SMS and MSN:
The Big One would hit Beijing at 2pm, said one rumor, later revised to 5 pm, and then 7 pm, as the rumored Big One stubbornly refused to arrive.
He then continues:
Which made clear a point about the recent proposed law that threatens to fine news media for reporting ‘unauthorized’ stories about breaking events: The function of news media during a time of emergency is to gather as many facts as possible and present a version of the truth that is better researched than casual text messages. Any law that hinders the process of sorting the facts from the rumors is a bad law.
My wife told me that the Roland Berger office in Beijing was even evacuated after the quake. No bigger shocks happened luckily, but it shows that Chinese media still have a long way to go, especially during emergencies.