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Sichuan earthquake reflects changing China

The response to the latest earthquake in Sichuan province has been very different to the one only five years ago. The transformation has been reflected in social media, a new tool to hold officialdom to account.

Medical personnel (L) and paramilitary policemen rush to reach the isolated Baoxing county a day after an earthquake hit Ya'an, Sichuan province, April 21, 2013. Rescuers struggled to reach a remote, rural corner of southwestern China on Sunday as the toll of the dead and missing from the country's worst earthquake in three years climbed to 208 with almost 1,000 serious injuries. The 6.6 magnitude quake struck in Lushan county, near the city of Ya'an in the southwestern province of Sichuan, close to where a devastating 7.9 quake hit in May 2008, killing 70,000. Picture taken April 21, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer (CHINA - Tags: DISASTER) CHINA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN CHINA

Erdebeben in China am 22. April 2013

The southern region of Sichuan was struck by a devastating earthquake which killed some 80,000 people almost five years ago.

It was the year of the Olympic Games in Beijing. The state media was made to report matters in a positive way. The crisis should be used to demonstrate the "boundless love" and unity of a nation. Certain discordant voices were effectively drowned out, such as those that questioned why most school buildings collapsed while those belonging to the authorities did not. At that time, social media in China was at a stage that could in no way be compared to today.

On April 20, a magnitude 7 quake shook Sichuan province once again. The catastrophe hit in the early morning and, according to media reports, there were some 200 deaths this time around. A further 10,000 people were reported injured with some 100,000 having to leave their homes.

As was the case five years ago, the Chinese Prime Minister, this time Li Keqiang, boarded a plane and headed for Sichuan to lead the rescue work on the scene.

Limited help for householders

In the last earthquake, every household with a damaged home received an aid grant of about 20,000 yuan (2,400 euros; 3,140 US dollars) along with cheap credit terms. However, to build a new house, those who were affected had to find a large sum of money for themselves.

China's Premier Li Keqiang (C) visits after a strong earthquake hits Lushan county, Ya'an, Sichuan province (Photo: REUTERS/Stringer)

Like his predecessor, Prime Minister Li (seated center) was quickly at the scene

State television CCTV showed Li on Sunday having breakfast and visiting people in villages and hospitals. He offered words of comfort. "The new houses must be better than before," he said.

There are reasons for optimism, believes Wu Qiang, a political scientist at Beijing's renowned Tsinghua University.

"In comparison to the last earthquake five years ago, this time it is not just state media that has reacted swiftly to the disaster with uninterrupted rolling news. The government's rescue efforts have also been better," said Wu.

The perception of the public is also more positive, he believes. "In social media on the Internet, the number of comments about the effectiveness of the rescue efforts that are positive outweighs those that are not."

'Encouraging step forward'

With more than 500 million users, Weibo - the Internet equivalent of Twitter in China - has become the country's principal social media forum. It coexists with the state media and, in many cases, is seen to hold the government and authorities to account in a way that the official media cannot.

Rescue workers load relief supplies onto a helicopter (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)

The rescue response is preceived by many to have been much improved

Information about how people could themselves rescue friends and neighbors hit by the quake was also quickly spread through forums like Weibo. There were other ideas about what should be done; people should not use cell phones more than necessary so that relief efforts were not compromised; tolls for highways to the affected areas should be suspended and clinics should treat the injured for free and public buildings should, where necessary, be opened up for the needy. Where these appeals were not heeded, those involved were immediately pilloried via Weibo.

Users are by and large agreed that the influence of social networks has grown significantly since the 2008 quake. As one Weibo user wrote: "Is this not an encouraging step forward?"

It is still far too early, so soon after the quake, to judge appropriately judge the rescue efforts, writer Zhang Qingzhou told DW, whose book "Tangshan's warning to the world," was published in 2006 and soon afterwards banned in China. Zhang, who is held in high esteem in specialist circles and whose book continues to be published in Hong Kong, calls for a different approach to the way the country deals with earthquakes.

"Any country in such a situation would use all available resources to save people in the catastrophe zones," said Zhang. "In my opinion, it would be more effective to put better warning systems for natural disasters in place than to put so much emphasis on making rescue services perfect."

Waning desire to donate

A particularly significant change since the last earthquake is the attitude of the public to donating towards relief efforts. Five years ago, the Chinese Red Cross collected some 65 million yuan over a 30-hour period. This time around, it has collected just 26 million yuan, a steep drop, although the number of fatalities is much lower.

Song Zhengqiong, a survivor, cries in front of her damaged house (Photo: REUTERS/Jason Lee)

Some 100,000 people have been forced to leave their home as a result of the quake

A strong mistrust of Red Cross and other official aid organizations is conspicuous on the Internet. The political scientist Wu Qiang points out that this feeling has been clearly expressed on Weibo. In contrast, the charitable organization One Foundation, founded by martial artist and actor Jet Li, was able to raise 25 million yuan on the first day after the quake. As one Weibo user put it: "I will donate nothing until the government lifts its monopoly of the Red Cross."

What has and has not changed remains to be see. However, He Weifang, a law professor at Beijing University urged Weibo readers to consider the way the disaster was reported by state media.

"I felt the urgent need to find out all the latest figures about the number of victims and the latest development when it came to the rescue efforts," said He. "But in the first ten minutes it was the same as ever; the latest government statements being broadcast continuously. Then, once again, it was the turn of a party official to have his say about caring for the victims and leading the rescue efforts. How about first reporting the extent of the catastrophe and then bringing us news about the leadership?"

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