It took a devastating earthquake to embolden domestic journalists to defy state diktats on reporting and show an uncensored view of events in Sichuan province. Iain Marlow reports
The Sichuan earthquake, which left 70,000 dead in China last month, produced at least one positive aftershock; a wave of journalistic outrage was sent rippling across the country, calling the authorities to account.
Suddenly, Chinese reporters are asking tough questions about possible government corruption, journalists have been ignoring state- issued orders in order to get to the scene of the disaster, and footage of broken bodies and futile rescue efforts was shown live on TV. This is a startling change in a country often depicted by foreign media and governments as an authoritarian, press-belittling monolith.
The foreign media have also been given unprecedented access to government officials, occasionally even to China's tearful premier "Grandpa" Wen Jiabao, who has dominated the press as Beijing's benevolent presence amidst corrupt local officials. Jiabao has been given an honourary Facebook profile with almost 50,000 supporters.
In the lead up to the Olympic Games in Beijing this August, the central government is introducing new laws that permit greater press freedoms for foreigners, while simultaneously cracking down on human rights activists to present a unified front to the world. Nevertheless, with immense daring, the domestic media have broken free of their reputation as dour purveyors of Communist Party propaganda in China's earthquake-ravaged Sichuan province.
Although the central government still quashes discussion on the cardinal taboos, most notably with the recent protests in Tibet, the earthquake has showcased the ongoing liberalisation of China's media. Journalists have asked damning questions about local corruption's role in the shoddily-built "tofu" schools that collapsed in the quake. They have also been allowed unheard of access to disaster zones - with one journalist reporting from a speeding helicopter as a People's Liberation Army soldier threw boxes out of an open door to scrambling peasants below.
The Chinese government has previously been strict when it comes to journalists covering natural disasters, such as flooding or the hurricanes that regularly lash the country's eastern coastline. But from the very start of the earthquake, says Agns Gaudu, who monitors the Chinese media as China editor for French news magazine Courrier International, this disaster has been totally different. "They ignored an order from the propaganda department not to go," says Gaudu of the Chinese journalists. "That was the first time that has happened. They rushed to the scene and did their job. The orders are usually observed. I've never heard an order of such a scale being ignored by all the press. It was purely and simply ignored. The order was to only publish [state-owned news agency] Xinhua dispatches."
There were other central diktats as well, which came later, such as only reporting positive news of the relief efforts. But, as far as Gaudu can tell, these have been ignored - and may well continue to be, despite a recent Financial Times report about a new order to rein in critical coverage, issued to reporters by the Chinese government. Indeed, on 3 June, the Chinese liberal weekly investigative newspaper Southern Weekend published an extensive investigation into a school that collapsed in the quake: its principal had approached officials about dangerous building conditions in 1998 and been told to buttress a collapsing roof with steel wire. …