July 01, 2005

Journalism is well and alive in China

Many in Hong Kong say that true journalism is not existing in China. Many have recently read about the tragedy of the flash flood in Shalan that killed hundreds of children.
The following text is a translation by EastSouthWestNorth (http://www.zonaeuropa.com/weblog.htm) of the field notes of a journalist of Nanfang weekend whose article was not published. He decided to publish it on internet and he explains why.
Wednesday (June 15) is the deadline for issue #1114 of Nanfang Weekend. In the morning, photographer Chai Chunya sent in the photographs. In the afternoon, I sent in the written article. At 7pm in the evening, we were having dinner at a Korean restaurant in Mudanjiang City, and I got a call from Yang Ruichun, the News Department Deputy Director and the Front Page editor. He sounded disheartened when he said: It won't be going out.

Fine. But I can still write up my field notes. I have reached this age. Apart from what I want to do, I must also do the things that I ought to do.

1. A Journalist's Judgment.

At around 5pm on June 13, we arrived at the rescue command center located outside Shalan Town. We went to the office of Mudanjiang City Propaganda Department directors Tang and Cao to get our "reporters' credentials." We worked in the town until 10pm in the evening, and then we returned to Ning'an City. We started out again at 830am on June 14, and we interviewed people at the Ning'an City funeral home and also in Shalan Town. We returned to Mudanjiang by 11pm. Prior to that, we spent about 10 hours on the afternoon and night of June 11 to collect local information on the weather, water works and other things.

This work volume was quite formidable under the circumstances, so I trust the amount of information that I obtained. I also believe in the quality of the information, because I believe my eyes more than my ears.

Subjective judgments should not be written into the news, but I can write them out here:

A. I did not belive that there was any mountain torrent or mudrock slide in Shalan Town on that day.

In a special report at Sina.com, a media company produced an illustration of the scene which indicates two mountain torrents coming down from the mountains. This is wrong. The villagers were very clear on this, and I can see it clearly. The water came from one direction only, and that is from the Shalan river. We spent more than 680 yuan in hiring a car on June 14. We spent more than 300 yuan going to and from Shalan, but the rest of the time we were going around Shalan Town. We saw no indication that the water came down the mountain. An objective fact is that the mountain is quite far away. Commonsense says that water flows from high to low. Which are the lowest points? Where the rivers and lakes are. If the distance is far enough, the mountain torrent would have gone into the river first.

If you run a Baidu-search on "mudrock slide", the first explanation is that a mudrock slide is geological mixing of water and rocks; the most classical mudrock slide is formed by large solid fragments mixed with powdery particles, and sticky mud. Please notice the word 'and' in the above. Solid and mud are both essential ingredients. This is common knowledge. The Yellow River is one bowl of water plus half a bowl of sand, but the Yellow River is not a mudrock slide.

Several hundred reporters were at the scene. Anyone who saw anything that fits the above definition can correct me. If the local officials continue to insist that it was a disaster due to mudrock slide, they need to exhibit a few rocks. They need to take an aerial photo to show the path by which the mountain torrent and mudrock slide hit Shalan Town.

On June 14, we attempted twice to reach Wangjia Village, Huoshing Village and Huoshing Reservoir, but the roads were impassable. Therefore, we cannot determine the conditions upstream. I can only say that there may be mountain torrents and mudrock slides upstream, or maybe not. But we must make it clear that as far as Shalan Town was concerned, people encountered a simple case of the river overflowing its banks. As far as the local officials are concerned, we all know that their responsibility will differ depending on whether it was mountain torrent, mudrock slide or river overflow.

B. The scale is disproportionate to the large number of casualties.

The flood water reached Shalan City (that is, the central bridge) around 2:15pm. According to the average time described by the children, from the moment that the water entered the classroom until it reached the maximum height of more than 2 meters, it only took about 10 minutes. Before then, it took some time for the water to rise up near central bridge, overflow the banks, flow into the parade ground and topple the schoolyard wall. Nobody witnessed that, but I would estimate that it took about 5 minutes. That is to say, the highest point of the water was reached around 2:30pm.

At a little past 3pm, Zhao Nanyi and other parents were able to enter the school grounds. At the time, the water was chest high, or about 1.2 meters. That is to say, the water went down by more than one-half in about half a hour. What kind of torrent is that? Sure, it can kill people. It can kill people even if it was smaller. But the unavoidable objective fact was that this was not a large flood. If the river course was directed more rationally, even if the flood could not be completely averted, it should not be able to kill more than 100 children within such a short time.

C. The river course was not rationally designed, and the school became a water collection point.

Since we were unable to reach the villages upstream, we cannot establish whether the river had water catchment or storage facilities upstream. But we can see clearly what was happening in Shalan Town. Our article said clearly that the central bridge near Central Primary School was about 10 meters above the water level, where the small bridge downstream was only 5 meters above the water level. This small bridge had suffered severe damage, and the iron rails were washed away. By comparison, the central bridge near the school was not damaged at all. This small bridge downstream acted as a water dam, and caused the school to become a water collection pont.

I wrote in the article that this was the assessment of the villagers. That is true. But I will say here that this was also this journalist's assessment.

D. I doubt the "once-in-200-years" theory

I don't have any proof on this. My colleague Xu Bin worked all day in Beijing to speak to weather experts in order to analyze the assertion by Heilongjian Water Works Department director Dong Shuhua as well as the seemingly contradictory weather reports from the Central Weather Observatory. The experts were careful and meticulous, and their analyses did not result in a definitive conclusion.

So this doubt is based upon the unwillingness to believe in an event with low probability.

In order for what Dong Shuhua said to occur, three conditions must simultaneously be satisfied:

1. A once-in-200-years heavy rainstorm occurred
2. This once-in-200-years heavy rainstorm was localized in a small area and escaped the detection by the weather observation network of more than 2,600 observation stations around the country. Thus, the Heilongjiang and the Central weather observatories could not issue alerts beforehand nor had any records afterwards.
3. This caused the deaths of more than 100 people, which is again something that is also rarely seen.

Other suspicious points have been noted by my colleague from Beijing.

E. The number of deaths is in doubt

We and a female Shanghai TV reporter entered into the morgue at the Ning'an funeral home, and we found out that there were 24 children and 4 adults. We recorded their names. Each metallic refrigerator case contained two children. More refrigerator boxes were in the garage, but we could not gain access. We tried to look through the windows, but our view was obstructed and we could not tell.

The families of the victims changed their minds and they would no longer released the names of the victims to us.

Therefore I have no evidence.

The reason that I am suspicious is that everyone in Shalan Town said that the numbers were fake and they said it quite emotionally. It was also because how the officials presented the figures over the first two days after the disaster.

Everyone can see that they were attempting to hide the truth. That goes without say. As a reporter who is supposed to gather useful information, I must judge their reliability and truthworthiness.

Summarizing the above and comparing against the official positions, I believe that the core facts before the Shalan Town disaster were the negligence and indifference of the local lower-level officials and the core facts afterwards were the lies and cover-ups by the officials collectively.

2. Information that was not included in the report.

In order not to get the newspaper into trouble, not everything was written into the article. But since the article has been banned, here is what was not reported:

1. The villagers said that Ning'an CIty Party Deputy Secretary Li Xinping was chased by angry villagers at 9am on June 11. There are two versions about how this happened. In version A, in front of the villagers, Li Xinping called the Mudanjiang City leaders to report that "nothing much happened here." In version B, Li Xinping was scolded by the villagers and he said, "Just a few people died here. What is the big deal?" More than 30 villagers said that this was true, and one villager even said that he witnessed it. To emphasize the point, based upon the practical need to be able to continue our work, we did not ask Li Xinping nor any other local officials for comments.

2. A local official told the family of a victim: "We give you 200,000 yuan, and you complain. We give you 150,000 yuan and you complain. We might as well as not give you the 150,000 yuan." The Relief Group threatened, cajoled and bribed the victims' representatives. Some representatives were accused by villagers for being traitors. On June 14, victims' representative Wang and Li promised to provide us with the full list of the dead school children, but they changed their minds suddenly and avoided us afterwards.

3. The villagers told the Disaster Investigation Group about the corruption among the town officials, especially about the public money for school construction being stolen. A case investigator told me in vague terms: "The investigation group is mainly looking at some things in depth, much more deeper than no one picking up the telephone." I believe that this is related to what the villagers were saying.

4. On the night of June 11, some of the families of the victims blocked cars from moving on the street as protest.

3. What I saw in Shalan Town

Shalan Town after the flood was like the disaster scenes that we have seen before. After the pain and anger has subsided, people look blank. In Chinese peasant villages, the children are the only reason for existence. Without the children, the family no longer exists. To be more practical, people count on their children to care for them when they age. What will they do without their children? Some of these people are too old to have more children. It is questionable if 150,000 yuan will see them through the rest of their lives. The more normal scene is that after the sorrow of the first few days, it became time to turn to plot revenge. But this is just talk, because revenge is just self-torture.

On June 14, the parents who lost their children were still wrapped in sorrow. But the relatives around them are already focusing on the compensation money and offering advice. This is the classical post-disaster scene. I am only too familiar with it. We live in cities that attempt to imitate the western world in every way, but the relatives of the villagers are still like the relatives in Balzac's era. An uncle of a dead child wanted us to help him plan on how to get more money from the government; then he told us that he was going to help us, he hung around our car for a while and then he disappeared.

I am not demeaning anyone. I am just recording . Such are our country, our family relationships and the realities of what we live under.

Of course, the article itself contained more pure pain.

4. What we experienced.

Cops were everywhere. On the evening of June 13 and all day on June 14, we were stopped six times. At 11pm on June 14, we were carefully checked and we passed through the last checkpoint to head towards Mudanjiang City. Fifteen minutes later, we were ordered to stop by a pursuing police car. The driver who had already been carefully checked was checked again, and he was brought away from our car. I suspected that the police was going to ask the driver what we did, so I went over with him immediately. The police repeated the same procedure that took place 15 minutes ago, and then he had to let us go. The police said that they did this to prevent disaster relief supplies from leaving the area, but they did not inspect our car trunk. The police then turned around and went back, which meant that they came explicitly to chase us down. If I didn't tell you that I like the police leader, it would be unkind. We enjoyed speaking to each other. When we passed each other, they honked their horn to be friendly while we laughed in our car.

But we smiled too early. On the evening of June 15, the ban was issued. On the afternoon of June 16, at Mudanjiang airport, I received a call from a Chinese Business reporter whom I got acquainted with at Shalan Town. He said that he could not find that day's issue of Nanfang Weekend in Harbin and the newsstand operator told him that they were told not to sell Nanfang Weekend.

Another double-layered safety condom.

I just received a telephone call from someone with a warm voice: "My name is Yang and I am with the propaganda department in Shalan." He said that they welcome us to go visit Shalan again.

Again and again, we write articles, we leave them in our computers and we put them in the public mailbox. So many things. Let the past go. But this time, I want to be more flexible and I wanted to discuss this from the viewpoint of writing techniques and to communicate with my peers. This is a professional exchange, so please don't misunderstand.

In Shalan Town, I and my colleague were scorned numerous times by the villagers: "What is the point of interviewing people? You do interviews, but you can't publish it. None of you speak the truth!" At the time, I promised that I will try my best to speak the truth. We said that we are different from whoever whoever and we will try our best. Accordingly, I am writing these notes. I don't know if I am doing this alone. There were several hundred journalists working out there. If someday, any one of them returns to Shalan Town, I hope it will be without shame. Robert Penn Warren wrote some lines of poetry that went something like: God loves the world, because it is what it is. Yesterday I didn't love this world, but today I can love this world for a moment, and the only difference was whether I tried or not.


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