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Communicating disaster

The government and media responses to the tragic earthquake in Sichuan province show that open access to information has greatly improved in China. But there is still more to communicate, writes Jia Hepeng.

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China has significantly improved its information flow in the wake of the 8.0 magnitude earthquake that hit southwest China’s Sichuan province on May 12, which on May 20 had claimed more than 40,000 lives. 

The 24-hour television news broadcasting and daily newspaper reports on the catastrophe and the rescue efforts, which came 12 days after new regulations on open government information took effect, have been widely praised by scholars and the international media as a symbol of China’s huge progress towards greater openness.

However, before we reach the conclusion that this new ruling has permanently improved the opening of information flows (leaving aside whether this constitutes transparency or not), additional measures and efforts are needed. And some of these measures must be implemented not only by government officials, but also by a wide range of people engaged in the process of communication.

One major such measure is to cover all information, not simply the information that benefits the information producers – primarily the government departments.

In the case of the Wenchuan earthquake, less than half an hour after the quake took place at 2.28pm on May 12, news of the quake from the China Earthquake Administration appeared on major Chinese news portals. It has subsequently been updated regularly on many Chinese websites.

In the following days, journalists were seen accompanying the first batch of rescuers, reporting from the collapsed buildings, the ruined villages, the devastated factories and twisted roads. Access for journalists, including the international media, saw almost no restrictions.

We should praise this lack of restrictions and also note how quickly the government responded to the natural disaster. The free access to information and widespread reporting has helped to show a very positive profile of the government. Hearing the touching and sincere speeches of premier Wen Jiabao at the ruins frequently brought tears to my eyes.

But there is more to communicate. There are many further reflections we should make, including reporting on possible man-made errors. These may include the poor construction of schools in the region and the impacts that the many dams along the Minjiang, or Min River, may have had on landslides caused by the quake.

We currently do not know whether the 100-plus dams along the river, which slowed the water flow and increased the amount of water in the soil and rocks on which urban and rural buildings were erected, have made landslides more common. But thorough research and investigation, as well as a wide-ranging discussion of the issues, are definitely needed.

It is worth mentioning that despite sporadic mentions of the possible impacts of the dams in media reports about the earthquake, no in-depth exploration of the possible links has been made. This is not only because of the lack of reliable information, but also because at the current stage, the consensus among rescue and media workers is to prioritise life-saving efforts, rather than apportioning blame for the disaster.

In one sense, this illustrates that when information flows freely, it will not necessarily lead to anyone making trouble: most people involved in the production of information and its transmission have the necessary ethical and pragmatic standards. And for the same reason, there is no need to worry about possible chaos if post-quake investigations into man-made errors are performed in an open and participatory manner. In a healthy society, public criticism of perceived government faults in various media can lead to constructive solutions, solutions that are often founded on the careful balancing of risks and benefits.

More institutional efforts

Aside from tolerating potentially critical reporting, many other institutional efforts are needed to ensure the free flow of information.

An open information policy does not only mean providing more information in a one-sided way, with no restrictions on access for journalists during natural disasters. Rather, it should represent an institutional way to facilitate the media and the public’s reasonable inquiries. This should include the timely provision of reliable and authoritative experts to reporters, the positive response to and interpretation of controversial information, and the training of officials and scientists to deal with the media. Reporters often demand quick and simple explanations, rather than a whole set of theories.

After the SARS outbreak in 2003, a spokesperson system was established across central and local government departments and major social institutions. While this has significantly improved the amount of information produced by the government, sometimes journalists find it more difficult to get the information they want because officials they approach simply turn to spokespersons, who often do not respond to interview applications, or not in a timely fashion.

A spokesperson is never omniscient, and it is understandable that he or she will not be able to handle all types of information. But they should become a medium to bridge journalists, scientists and officials in their separate institutions – rather than a blockage in the flow of sensitive or elusive information. It is important to note that in a diversified society, media – and the public they should represent – not only receive large amounts of information from the government, but are also a factor that helps the production and flow of essential information that is relevant to the public interest.

This open information flow, however, does not simply emerge from the efforts of government and other institutions. Media, including the press and online publications, should play a role in ensuring the flow of accurate information.

On May 12, minutes after the quake, many Beijing residents were startled to read stories – reportedly originating from people.com.cn -- that a 2 to 6 magnitude earthquake was very likely to hit Beijing between 10pm and midnight that evening.

The authoritative China Earthquake Networks Centre soon denied the rumours and seismologists later explained that the predictions could not have come from a seismologist, because experts classify earthquakes smaller than a magnitude of 5 as small, while those larger than 5 are considered large. No professional seismologist would ever mention earthquakes of such differing magnitudes in the same statement.

We cannot judge whether this rumour was intentionally created or resulted from the misinterpretation of scientific opinion, but we do know that healthy and responsible professionalism for media workers – especially website editors – requires double-checking essential information of this kind with authoritative departments. If they had done so, it would have been easy to avoid such confusing and shocking information being released. It is undeniable that media professionalism needs to be improved, but it is also true that without positive efforts from the officials to deal with sensitive information, media professionalism cannot be cultivated in practice.

It is not easy for senior officials to accept open criticism, for experts involved in information to become adept at communicating with journalists, or for the media to accurately judge all information. But, as the Wenchuan earthquake has proved, opening information flows can bring such benefits that everyone engaged in the process should be working hard to achieve these goals.

Jia Hepeng is the China Regional Coordinator for Science and Development Network (SciDev.Net), a source of free news, views and analysis about science and technology in the developing world, as well as a promoter of science communication in the developing countries.

Homepage photo by wang qian 02/13/86

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


谢谢Yang bin先生"转贴从网上一段反驳文字,希望对澄清事实真相有帮助".


1 李勇教授说:"国家自然科学基金委连续六年拿出资金专题来进行龙门山逆冲和走滑作用的研究。"


2 为什么至今大陆媒体对此一致漠不作声呢?




3 既然在中国国家自然科学基金和美国的基金的支持下,6位科学家作出了地震预测,为什么研究成果只在美国的[地壳]杂志上公布,而中国人民却在汶川大地震之才从美国[国家地理]的报道中得知这一成果呢?有关政府部门是什么时候知道它的呢?采取了什么行动为此作出防范措施了吗?


re: comment by Yang bin

Thanks go to Yang bin for citing a blog to help clarify the issue.

I see several points from the citation: First, Prof. Yong Li has said a special fund had been allocated for six years in row for the research of rock thrust and slide of Longmen Mountain. However, why has China not supported the research by Qingguo Gen, who has precisely predicted earthquakes?

How can the China Seismological Bureau deny having accepted the letters sent by Qingguo Gen on April 30 and Yiwen Chen on May 3 of precise forecasts of the Wenchuan quake.

Secondly, how can the media in Chinese mainland keep quiet and not report this? Why did the deputies of the people keep silent about this?
And why have some related articles been deleted from blogs and online forums? Are not all these blatant infringements of the Constitution's regulation 35 governing the freedom of speech?

Does this mean the Chinese nationality has to be dragged into another absurd argument of calling black the color white in the 21th century?

Thirdly, Why has the adacemic paper, jointly researched by China, US and EU, been published only by the US magagine Tectonics? And Chinese people can only access the information after the fact. When did related official departments become aware of the forecasts and had they taken any preventive measures? Taodax

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


Tectonics杂志刊登了很多有关讨论该报告的文章,以及为什么'所受威胁'没有受到重视。 这份17页的报告链接如下:[http://www.geography.dur.ac.uk/documents/densmore/densmore_etal07.pdf ]

虽然研究得出结论认为, “断层虽然足够长可以带来地面的震动,使它们成为区域地震灾害潜在的严重来源”但它没有说明可能发生的日期以及即将发生的地质变动。事实上,该文件,虽然明确表示该地区容易发生地震,但是在一个很长的地质时间内。该报告说:“北川和彭灌断层在最近的更新世以及其他一些地区在全新世已经经历了地表断裂。”

Earthquake 'prediction'

There has been much discussion relating to the paper published in Tectonics magazine and why the ‘threat’ wasn’t heeded. The 17 page report, [http://www.geography.dur.ac.uk/documents/densmore/densmore_etal07.pdf] even if presented to authorities, would not have rung alarm bells. The study looked at seismic activity over a long time scale. The primary focus was on the Holocene epoch which stretches back 11,500 years, but the study also looked at geomorphology covering the Pleistocene epoch which covers the previous million years. The scientists involved also looked at the Cenozic era as a whole, a 65 million year period. Although the study concludes that “the faults are sufficiently long to sustain a strong ground-shaking earthquake, making them potentially serious sources of regional seismic hazards”, it sets no future date and does not suggest imminent geological disturbance. In fact the document, while making it clear that the area was prone to earthquakes, it places this onto a long geological time line. “The
Beichuan and Pengguan faults have experienced surface rupture during the latest Pleistocene and at some locations during the Holocene” the report says. Ba Jin [巴金]

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


taodax 08-05-27



第二定律随之而来:"没有民主制度,人民就得不到可靠的消息",我对"信息"的关注来源于1978年读到的一本书: [维纳著作选],其中有一句印象深刻的话:"要有效的生活就要有足够的信息",当时似懂非懂的这句话使我一直在收集有关信息的思想.30年来我终于形成了明确的看法,民主制度是一个高效核实信息的体系,它最初产生于人类普遍的需求,人类社会的生存与发展与信息核实的水平密切相关,而信息是分成五种:知识,观点,政策法律,事实,数据。

在中国历史上有大量的成语是关于核实信息的:周朝有千金买一笑的周武王,,战国有抗木头取信于民的商鞅,有三人成虎的魏惠王,秦朝有指鹿为马的赵高,汉代就有了成语实事求是,宋代有成语盲人摸象....中国的历史充满了计谋和欺诈的故事,这些悠久的传统文化使我们的民族比其他民族更容易理解虚假信息是怎么回事. [三国演义]里的草船借箭,借东风,蒋干盗书,苦肉计,空城计...人们在歌颂那些大智大勇的英雄计谋. [西游记]里的孙悟空更是信息核实的专家和鼻祖:他善于调查妖魔鬼怪的来龙去脉,上天入地去找到它们的克星,他所编织的信息核实网,快速,准确,高效,是人类对未来信息时代最早的畅想.

落后制度导致信息混乱,进而导致环境崩溃,---这一思想的突破来自有阅读贾瑞.戴蒙德的 [崩溃]一书(台湾翻译[大崩坏]),一个高度发展的文明竟然会一个又一个地由于人为的疏忽而崩溃:6000年前由于错误的灌溉方法而崩溃的苏美耳文明,它的遗迹被深埋在巴比伦文明遗址之下,近代才被重新发现.十六世纪自行消失的玛亚文明,原因有:人口过剩资源短缺,森林砍伐,农地减少,国王和贵族熟视无睹,环境和资源问题引发内部冲突...(P218-219[大崩坏]),复活节岛在1500年前后把森林砍伐殆尽,走上了生态自杀的绝路.



China’s environment crisis (part one)

During my discussion of water crisis with internet users in May 2007, some thoughts came into my mind. One of them is "where there are no votes of the people, where the rivers will stink. "This is true to my experience of the last ten years and the tap water pollution in Wu Xi is a typical case.

Secondly, I have to say that without democratic system, the public cannot obtain reliable information. I was influenced and deeply impressed by Norbert Wiener’s version: to live effectively is to live with adequate information. Democratic system is an effective mechanism for information checking. There are a big number of idioms to tell the information-checking stories in ancient China. This cultural background enables the Chinese people to have a better sense of what is false information.

The human society has been longing for an information era when timely, accurate and highly efficient access to information is a reality. Backward system will bring in confusing information and even ensuing collapse of the environment. I was enlightened by the book, written by Jared Diamond, entitled Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. A highly developed society can even fall to collapse after human’s neglect of problems one by one. There are many historical events to prove this, including the collapse of Sumerian and Maya civilizations, as well as the fall of Soviet Union.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

支持Yang Bin

- Aturen

Support Yang Bin

It is fine that you have doubts, but baseless doubts will lead to confusion and rumours. I found the academic paper from the internet and there are no precise dates for predictions of earthquakes in the paper.

I forwarded the paper to one of my friends who studied geology. She does not think there are effective forecasts in it neither.

Regarding Qingguo Gen, I have yet to see any enough and concrete evidence to show he has accurately predicted earthquakes. If the modules established by Qingguo Gen can be proved through experiments or facts, then we can say his predications are up to scientific level.

Scientists are defined more by the scientific work they do, rather than the title they have.

There are no national boundaries in scientific information, that is part of the reason why the paper was published by a US magazine.

I believe that Chinese official departments had already been aware of the paper before its publishing. As you know, two of authors are experts from China.

China had started to implement the regulation on anti-earthquake housing design in the wake of the 1978 Tangshan quake. However, it is the responsibility of the government to implement the regulations strictly.

Taodax, I would like to tell you "try not to get facts from news reports". This was also true during the recent torch relay.


Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





China’s environment crisis (part two)

During the past 60 years in China, typical examples in China included the Great Leap Forward Movement and the Great Famine from 1959 to 1961, the failure of diverting Yellow river for irrigation in 1958, the Sanmeixia project failure in 1961 as well as the Cultural Revolution. Is there any country in the world which has experienced so many secretive public polices as China has?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous







香港杂志[亚洲周刊]08-05-24对耿庆国作了独家专访:[越是大地震越容易预测。]作者:江迅,香港[东方日报]08-05-26采访了中国地球物理学会天灾预测专业委员会顾问陈一文,[专家踢爆地震局谎话连篇] .自由制度下的中国媒体正在为13亿人民追寻着真相.


blog taodax 08-05-27


To search for truth is a duty of every citizen

Mr. Aturen:

The earthquake-forecasting information I collected and forwarded has exceeded the amount issued by thousands of state-owned media in Chinese mainland and by the Phoenix TV station. This is a big difference compared to the situation in 1958, thanks to the internet, other advanced communication technologies, as well as my personal efforts. This also indicates the disgrace of the state-owned media.

Debates about the disasters caused by human activities in the past 60 years became only possible during the past 30-40 years. The key issues now are if we can recognize the mistakes in the past and can we learn some lessons from them? If the right to report truth is deprived, the truth will be buried.

The Hong Kong magazine Asia Week has conducted an exclusive interview with Qingguo Gen and the interview was entitled: The stronger the earthquake is, the easier is its prediction. The Oriental Daily in Hong Kong also interviewed Yiwen Chen,
consultant of natural disaster prediction committee of the Chinese Geographical Society. Chen’s interview was published under the title of “Seismological bureau is lying, say experts”

Please refer to my blog taodax 08-05-27 , in which you can find 20 sources to check all related information. This task to find the truth lies in the hands of every citizen.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Re: Taodax

I would believe that an earthquake is predictable if you could list five scientific journals which have made such predictions. It is meaningless for carpenters to instruct farmers. And it is inappropriate to chat about and interfere in another’s honest work.

Every profession requires special expertise. What is unbearable is watching lay people trying to instruct professionals.

If you really have lots of spare time, please try to find out any earthquake predictions in magazines and compare them to any actual occurrence as predicted. You should have lived in 1958, when Guo Moruo was President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Aturen

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





这把我们带入到公共政策的领域和政治的领域,而我和我正在研究公共信息核实理论,(其中有[中国环境危机三定律] [Three laws of inertia for China Environment Crisis])是专门来揭示"专制的制度--封闭的信息--环境与生态崩溃"这三者之间的因果关系的.



Information checking is important

Mr. Aturen,

Everybody agrees that the earth rotates about the sun. So if someone defends this, he or she will not be required to list five astronomical journals to back his or her argument. The majority of people, including me, pay attention to and participate in the debate of earthquake prediction, which is as much common sense as the earth revolving around the Sun.

When I heard that studies by several scientists have been suppressed, my ears pricked up immediately. This reminds me of the articles I read when I was young about the criticism of Einstein and the Big Bang theory.

Other examples also came to my mind of other scientists whose thoughts and theories have been kept from being revealed.

This brings us to the issue of public policies and politics. And part of my research aims to disclose the relations between an arbitrary system, restricted access to information and ecological collapse.

Regarding the Sichuan earthquake, the issue is whether the tremor predictions by Qingguo Gen and Wenyi Chen had been ignored and suppressed? Has the National Seismological Bureau failed to report the predictions, a mistake they made in 1976 prior to the Tangshan Earthquake? Has not the pubic the right to obtain information without restriction?


Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




[第一财经日报] 作者: 季谭;田毅 2008年05月28日

Qingguo Geng: I have been following this earthquake for over 3 years

It's said that some experts veraciously predicted this earthquake before it happened. Our newspaper proved that the prediction of Qingguo Geng, a member of the Committee of Natural Disasters under the Chinese Academy of Geophysics, predicted a 6-7 earthquake between May 2008 and April 2009 at the cross of Gansu, Sichuan and Qinghai province, south of Lanzhou city. Obviously, that was a medium-phase prediction. Meanwhile, the Chinese Earthquake Office reported this prediction to the "Finance and Economics" magazine.

"I have been following this earthquake for over 3 years, my prediction is definitely true. Now the emergency is rescue the people." Researcher Qingguo Geng said this to a journalist from our newspaper.

--Quoted from [Question of the earth: Wenchuan, a scientific point of view] [Daily of The First Finance and Economics] Author: Tan Ji; Yi Tian, MAy 28th, 2008.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous







Snow Crisis Caused by La Nina Phenomenon and Wenchuan Earthquake--Same in Essence

Who should be the arbitrator of publishing the prediction made by scientists? In other words, how can we transfer the technology and skills into production and ability of preventing and reducing the impact of disaster? There are several steps of publishing the results made by weather association and earthquake association. First, announcing it publicly should be considered. Second, it should be reported to Congress, and then the relative department of Congress should take action to urge government and people to prepare for the disaster. Third, investigate the broadcasting before the two disasters and find where the problem is. Thus, laws and regulations can be set to improve the policy. Scientists around the world predicted the earthquake by long-term tracing and researching. It is a great improvement of cognition and disaster preventing, and meanwhile it shows our disadvantages. We are looking into the gains and losses of disaster broadcasting from the perspective of technology and institution. From now, a debate of science and democracy begins. The point is that, we should adopt the positive sequence—democracy makes good communication, then get effective prevention of disaster, instead of negative sequence—rigid policy lead blocking information, then end in frequent disasters.

(This comment was translated by Stacy Xu.)