Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The China snowstorms

The general impression created by the reporting from China over the past two weeks has been apocalyptic. Anyone who has ever been isolated, stuck, or lost in a snowstorm, a flood, an earthquake, or other natural disaster knows the hopeless feeling, the powerlessness that nature can impose. The snowstorms and cold that hit China in the past two weeks are no different than similar events  elsewhere in the world. The difference in China, as it aways is, is the impact on a huge population.
More measured reporting beginning today, New Year's Eve in China, is backing away from the apocalyptic picture that has been created.

I am bemused by the fact that news reports seem to forget or ignore the fact that similar circumstances occur every time a part of the US,  Europe, Russia, Central Asia, Africa or Latin America are hit by nature. Power often goes out (it usually takes less time to restore power in the developed world), people die in smaller numbers in smaller countries, transportation systems are disrupted (the early predictions of weeks of outages in China may prove to have been exaggerated).

Yes the snowstorms in China were unusual events, but that is what nature is all about. Averages are made of extremes.

The nasty part is that the government was not prepared. There was no plan (see Katrina). The big difference in China is that the government admitted its lack of preparedness. 

Reports said that news was censored. And yet CCTV television and newspapers in China have been full of reports, images as well as text. The stories have not been as extensive (or as apocalyptic as the foreign press), but the reports were absent 10-20 and 30 years ago were there.

Everything has been on the Internet. The pressure of disclosure from citizen reports, video and still photos has consistently been on the government media. Increasingly, government media bend to those pressures.

Prime Minister Wen Jiaobao and President Hu Jintao both hit the road to meet with people stranded, and suffering. The Prime Minister was prominently displayed with a megaphone at the Guangzhou RR station speaking to a crowd that stretched to 200,000 plus mostly migrant workers who were trying to get home for the Spring Festival/Chinese New Year. Wen Jiaobao had a simple message: "We apologize". The government acknowledged publicly that it was not prepared.

The mantra of all governments caught off guard followed: "...we are now doing everything to put it right." Remember Katrina, the aftermath of which is still playing out two years after the event? Many New Orleanians are still waiting for relief. The US government response has been chaotic, inadequate, and to this day unresolved.
In China 2 million soldiers were thrown into the mess, to shovel snow, to maintain order, and to deliver relief. The mobilization of the Chinese military, which included the movement of massive numbers of soldiers and equipment was accomplished within 48 hours. Trains, planes, etc are now running. 

There is much left to be done, but the difference appears to be that a massive effort is underway to deal with the need to restore electricity to cities, to make sure the flow of coal keeps power plants working, and that the disruption of food and commerce is resolved. The crisis that characterized much of the reporting during the storm has passed. The massive coverage has been reduced to a trickle. We are bored and move on, both the reporters whose worst scenarios did not come to pass and the public whose lives go on.

I am in HK where there is no effect whatsoever, life is normal. My hometown of Shantou about 300 kms up the SE coast of China had lower than normal temperatures but was otherwise been unaffected. This is New Year's eve and celebrations and parades and fireworks are all on track.

The point is perspective, as it always is in daily news reporting. As journalists we are trained to anticipate the worst. Most of us have seen enough natural disasters to understand the individual tragedies they bring, the disruptions that occur. Most of us have also been spun or lied to by authorities who are quick to explain away lack of preparedness or other human failing.
Most of us are also aware of the fact that people living a few hundred yards from a flooded river are unaffected while our pictures may show a world underwater. Most of us are aware of the fact that weather is localized. Even the massive snowstorms in China impacted a relatively small percentage of the country. The personal impact was large because of the size of the population; but on a percentage basis, the numbers are small. This is a difficult concept for reporters and readers and viewers. There are very few places in the world - India and Pakistan are exceptions - where similar reporting challenges take place.

Reporters, particularly foreign reporters are still learning that the scale of all events in China creates a different category of problems and solutions. In the past in China this storm would have created famine and death for millions. Recovery might have taken a decade. This time the immediate impact lasted 36 to 48 hours. This contrast between the China of the past and today's China is a difficult concept for reporters working in their expatriate bureaus in mega-cities and living in apartments that differ little from standards at home. The reporters who do go into the field are limited by experiences that shed little light on nature. Blocked highways can mean that a road trip that normally takes four hours may take 36 hours. These familiar stories to readers and viewers in developed countries are new to Chinese citizens. 

The prism through which many of us have seen this story is a traditional reportorial prism. Yet what seems to have happened in China is that a government admittedly unprepared for an unusually heavy blow from nature, has in the first stages of recovery managed a problem that the richest economy in the world stll has not been able to handle.