Wednesday, February 11, 2009

ChiComs control the Universe

The K-blogs are abuzz over the tragedy of four deaths during festivities over the Taeborŭm holiday [or Daeboreum; 대보름, 大보름], a traditional holiday marking the propitious first full moon of the new year (on the lunar calendar).

BBC News has an excellent video clip on the tragedy in Ch'angnyŏng-gun County [Changnyeong-gun, 창녕군/昌寧郡], near Taegu. As the BBC News clip explains, many had gathered to watch this traditional event, which is dying out in South Korea. 

BBC reported some 15,000 people had gathered at this one at Mt Hwawangsan [화왕산/], a mountain whose name, ironically, can be translated as "fire prosper mountain" or "fire increase mountain" (click on each hantcha character to see the Wiktionary explanation). 

Historically, burning the grass around farms or the straw placed on top of it has been a way to control pests, by killing bugs as eggs or larvae. It has since morphed into ceremonial ritual. Organizers were not prepared for a shift in winds, people panicked and ran, and as often happens when a lot of people flee in a hurry, some fall or get trampled, with disastrous results. 

This is truly tragic and my heart goes out to the victims and their families. We may also see an end to this particular ritual in the coming years, in favor of less deadly traditions. Sadly, this stampede is not a lonely occurrence, as we have seen other incidents where too-large crowds come with deadly results. 

The odd thing I found about news surrounding this tragedy is that it became the replacement filler when the Chinese authorities removed a news story about the recent destruction by fire of a new 44-story Beijing landmark, that was part of the Olympic construction boom, the soon-to-open Mandarin Hotel.

Although the building was not yet occupied, one firefighter was killed when the building was gutted. Investigators are saying the inferno was sparked by burning embers from a celebratory fireworks display set off from the nearby building, the odd shaped structure at left in the picture below (the gutted Mandarin Hotel is at right). 

That building is home to CCTV, the state broadcaster whose Lantern Festival fireworks display is being held responsible and who now are the target of the nation's ire. Elsewhere in China, fifteen people were killed in Fujian Province when fireworks were set off in a bar

Authorities were embarrassed, which is probably why the pictures were removed. From the above linked NYT article:
But residents of the city who came to see the smoking shell of architect Rem Koolhaas’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel had a harder time day finding images of the fire on the Internet in China, on television or in the city’s newspapers.

There were no pictures on the front page of The Beijing News. On Tuesday morning, the home page of Xinhua, the official news agency, featured a photo from another tragedy: a stampede in South Korea that left four people dead. Throughout the day, CCTV’s brief bulletins about the blaze omitted footage of the burning tower. By evening, the newscast skipped the story entirely.

Even before the flames had been extinguished early Tuesday, pictures of the burning hotel had been removed from most of the main Internet portals serving China. In the afternoon, the story had been largely buried, but by the evening, news of the fire was accessible via the Xinhua and CCTV Web sites.
Marmot's Hole regular commenter Linkd (one of my favorites there) had a few choice words to say about the switcheroo:
The Chinese are very superstitious people, Elgin. This fire so close to the New Year, in such an iconic Beijing building, is a bad omen for the rest of the year. The ChiCommPty is already worried enough about unrest from increasing unemployment and closing factories. In a fatherly way, it’s trying to protect its flock from getting themselves all worried about nothing. (more precisely, from thinking that the omen points toward mishandling of the nation’s affairs by the CCP)
Okay, so the ChiComs are worried about unrest and public disorder—and possible revolution—but why replace it with a story on a much smaller tragedy in Korea? Sure, there's that Lantern Festival/Taeborŭm angle, but this is part of a disturbing trend where South Korea has become a whipping boy for nationalism in the People's Republic of China. 

While looking into the stampede-for-inferno substitution, I found something else a bit odd. In a UPI story on the Korean fire and stampede, the news agency being quoted was not Yonhap, but China's official mouthpiece, Xinhua:
Local police said two people were missing Tuesday after at least four people died when a crowd stampeded during a grass-burning ceremony in South Korea.

Police said the incident occurred Monday on a field on Mount Hwangwang in Changyeong, southeast of Seoul, during a traditional ritual of burning of pampas grass, the Chinese news agency Xinhua reported. A breeze expanded the fire, forcing about 15,000 participants to flee.

Kim Yeon-sun, an official of the Changyeong municipal government, told Xinhua two people were missing as of Tuesday. At least 60 people were injured.

The Changnyeong municipal government conducts the burning the pampas grass ceremony every three years to mark the first full moon of the lunar new year on the Mount Hwangwang, Xinhua said.
The report by Xinhua is probably all correct—at least in this case—but it is a bit unsettling that a government-controlled official mouthpiece from an authoritarian government known for manipulating news to shape its political agenda, including the dissemination of news that would affect the image of its geographic neighbors, would be used as an authoritative source for events unrelated to it outside its borders (and in all fairness, I could say something almost as harsh about some South Korean news agencies). 

Make no mistake: Beijing tries hard to control the news that reaches Chinese eyeballs. That means removing or downplaying stories of Chinese tragedies and, sometimes, playing up or even distorting events that happen in rival nations, including Japan and now South Korea. 

And that's why it's hard for Chinese to see stories like this one in the New York Times [The Discovery Channel's "TreeHugger" website carries the same story]. It seems that last year's devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province, in which some 80,000 lives were lost, may have been triggered by a massive dam built nearby on a major fault line

From the NYT article:
Nearly nine months after a devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province, China, left 80,000 people dead or missing, a growing number of American and Chinese scientists are suggesting that the calamity was triggered by a four-year-old reservoir built close to the earthquake’s geological fault line. 

A Columbia University scientist who studied the quake has said that it may have been triggered by the weight of 320 million tons of water in the Zipingpu Reservoir less than a mile from a well-known major fault. His conclusions, presented to the American Geophysical Union in December, coincide with a new finding by Chinese geophysicists that the dam caused significant seismic changes before the earthquake.
Sichuan residents were already angry at officials for what was perceived as corruption and criminal indifference to the lives of regular people in the area, exemplified by many government offices remaining standing while schools full of children collapsed like pancakes. 

The connection between the dam and the earthquake is not yet a slam dunk:
Scientists emphasize that the link between the dam and the failure of the fault has not been conclusively proved, and that even if the dam acted as a trigger, it would only have hastened a quake that would have occurred at some point.
Having grown up in earthquake country, I know what it's like to wait for "the Big One," but seismic inevitability does not mean it's about to happen. The earthquake that may have been triggered might otherwise have occurred decades in the future—when the people presumably would have been ready with better construction.

Oh, dear God, if it turned out that the earthquake may have been triggered by a massive dam built irresponsibly over a fault line, this could be the spark of unrest that could be a body blow to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and perhaps they know it.
Nonetheless, any suggestion that a government project played a role in one of the biggest natural disasters in recent Chinese history is likely to be politically explosive.

The issue of government accountability and responsiveness has boiled over in China in the past year. The grieving parents of thousands of schoolchildren killed in the disaster have already made the 7.9-magnitude earthquake a political issue, charging that children died needlessly in unsafe school buildings approved by negligent or corrupt officials.
Public safety and order are the linchpins of the CCP's raison d'être. The last thing they need is people thinking that their poor planning represents a careless disregard for the the lives of small children. Chinese history is often steered in a different direction by angry peasants, and they are likely to throw more than just shoes at the Premier.

Expect more finger-pointing eastward, in the direction of Korea and Japan. 

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