China’s New Groove: “The information opening is the disaster relief best weapon”

Photographing a Wedding and then an Earthquake
A rare glimpse from a Sichuan wedding haunted by the three minute earthquake (via Kottke.org)

In recent weeks, there seemed to be an incredible number of reports of natural disasters happening around the world. While most of us might attribute this to the brunt of climate change finally dawning upon us, this is also likely the effect of a highly networked society, where peripheral news that would otherwise be left out from mainstream media (i.e. what’s fit for print), would come full center in most netizens’ conversations. The recent earthquake in Sichuan (China) is no exception, except for the fact that information came forth uncharacteristically freer than before.

As a topic of my dissertation, the Great Firewall of China has been subject to immense pressure from the Western media, yet appears to be a non-issue to Chinese netizens themselves. Simply put, there has been enough personal freedom in their Internet use that most of them don’t feel compelled to take issue with their political freedom online.

While such is the case, this isn’t to say that the Chinese government hasn’t been as open as it should be on civil affairs. In 1976, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake hit Tangshan province. Chinese censors were quick to clamped down on news of the actual death toll from the event, which was estimated to range between 240,000 to 779,000 (via Washington Post)

Having notice the flurry of information about the recent Sichuan quake, especially photos and twitters (some possibly translated), I called out on twitter for any information pertaining to an apparently new “open” information policy put forth by the Chinese government (as hinted on Gizmodo).

Thanks to the wonders of twitter, @AOmoon responded with how he read about it in a recent Chinese publication and offered to dig out more concrete information. Not long after, he came back with this Chinese article, which when translated under Yahoo’s Babelfish yielded the following optimistic headline amongst a series of quake related articles:

The information opening is the disaster relief best weapon. Zhang Jieping, Tan Weier, Qiu early morning

@AOmoon later noted that “it took them 13months to prepare the law but only less than 12 days to use it. Info is China greatest weapon to fight the Quake”

The next day, @AOmoon rewarded me with a comprehensive English language article from The China Teaching Web, which explained what I now know as State Council Decree 492. The article pointed out that the Chinese government’s decision to allow unrestricted flow of information in the aftermath of the Sichuan quake was a natural surprise to many, but it should be noted that this decision was “in fact made last year when the State Council passed the People’s Republic of China Ordinance on Openness of Government Information”.

Article I in the ordinance succinctly sums up the purpose of the ordinance:

This ordinance is instituted in order to ensure that citizens, legal persons and other organizations may obtain government information in accordance with the law, to raise the transparency of government work, promote legal governance, and thoroughly bring into play the service function of government information in the productivity and lives of the masses and in economic and social events.

Interestingly, the ordinance did not go into effect until May 1st, 2008, the earthquake in Sichuan this week was the first real test that the new policy has faced. As astutely pointed out by the writer,

Releasing information about an earthquake is one thing; releasing information about what happened in Tibet in March or what ocurred at Tiananmen Square in 1989 is quite another. Only time will tell […]

Head over to read the entire article on “How State Council Decree 492 Affects the Earthquake Aftermath“. Also check out a good summary of this from the Associated Press.

In other news, China to airlift giant pandas from quake-hit Sichuan to Beijing.

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