Sunday, 18 April 2010

Prejudice or Indifference?

If the year 2010 were to be remembered, one of the most noticeable happenings should be earthquakes. Over the past three and a half months there have had at least six strong earthquakes in Chile, Haiti, Indonesia, Taiwan, Turkey and the United States.

China was not lucky enough to be spared. On Wednesday morning, 14 April, a strong earthquake of 6.9 in Richter scale rocked the Tibetan plateau in Qinghai province of northwest China. To date more than 1,400 were killed and more than 10,000 injured. Hundreds are still missing.

When the horrifying scenes of the Sichuan and Haiti earthquakes are still fresh in memory, it is hard to believe that yet another one has struck so close to home. When I remember how the Chinese people stood up in grief but greater strength during the relief and rescue work of the Sichuan earthquake, I can't help being puzzled by the relatively cold response from the government and the public towards the Qinghai victims.

Unlike in May 2008 when Chinese state television broadcast live around the clock the relief and rescue operations, the coverage currently dedicated to similar work in Qinghai has been drastically reduced. Hong Kong media also seem to have played down for no reason the significance of the earth's wrath, although their enthusiasm in singing praise of the respectful 46-year-old volunteer Mr Wong Fuk-wing, who died after saving the children and teachers at the orphanage where he worked, has obviously exceeded sensible limits.

Why is that? I can't help asking. The most common explanation is that Qinghai is largely inhabited by Tibetans, who are often seen by the Chinese leaders as potential troublemakers. The Chinese government does not want excessive public attention, especially from overseas, which may cause unwanted repercussions to the disaster relief efforts. Unfortunately we will never be able to verify this argument. All we can see is the regrettable reversion to selective information dissemination that can only reinforce negative perceptions about the communist regime.

Interestingly, the Hong Kong media also seem weary in reporting the Qinghai earthquake compared to what they did about Sichuan two years ago. Of course Mr Wong's selflessness deserves our highest respect, but does it justify three days of full-page coverage on the front page? Isn't there anything else worth reporting? Why did the local media spend so much resources and devotion to the reporting of the Sichuan earthquake but not the most recent one in Qinghai? Does it have anything to say about our sympathy that requires some sort of unspoken pre-requisite such as the familiarity of the location? While more of us have heard about Sichuan than Qinghai, how many of us can tell where Sichuan is on the map of China? Does unfamiliarity justify indifference to those who suffer?

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