Making a drama out of a crisis

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The Independent Culture
A disaster for the country, the floods have

been a godsend for the reputation of the

People's Liberation Army. The tarnish of

Tiananmen Square is being wiped away

in a flood of heroic propaganda

Every Chinese flood needs its heroines, and none is more intriguing than Xu Hongping. Shirt unbuttoned, 27-year-old Ms Xu has been featured recently on prime time television and in newspaper photographs, squirting breast milk on to wasp stings on the back of the head of a People's Armed Police anti-flood fighter.

A more poignant heroine is Gui Dan, whose soldier fiance was sent to battle the floods just before their wedding. She was shown racked by sobs after he was killed by a dike that collapsed in Hubei province. Ms Gui and her family later won national media recognition for donating 120,000 yuan (pounds 9,200) of their savings to buy clothes for flood victims. "As a soldier, my fiance sacrificed his life for the people," she said.

In China this summer there are the floods, the worst since 1954, causing untold misery for millions of people, and widespread destruction. And then, as pervasive, there is the flood propaganda. The party mouthpiece, the People's Daily, said this week in a typical editorial: "Our cadres at all levels have devoted their loyalty, wisdom, and flesh and blood to the fight against the floods. This is a strength to shake the world. From them, the people see the strong leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and government; they see the Communist Party is good, the People's Liberation Army is good, socialism is good, and the great family of the motherland is good."

Despite two decades of reform and opening up, the floods have shown that China remains a deeply Communist regime at heart. The way the flood battle has been portrayed in the Chinese media is a reminder of its ingrained political culture. Old habits die hard. This has been a mass mobilisation of which Chairman Mao would have been proud, and it is Maoist rhetoric, charged with historical resonances, that provides the idiom. Take Ms Xu's breast milk, for the sake of argument. Reporting her case, the Chinese media drew a direct parallel with the famed women of Yimeng region in Shandong province, who provided breast milk for starving Red Army soldiers during the pre-1949 revolutionary struggle. Or consider the revival of the Maoist slogan "Yi bu pa ku, er bu pa si" ("Don't fear hardship, don't fear death"), now applied to the imperilled soldiers desperately shoring up the dikes.

The floods are also a reminder that most of Chinese society is still organised in a way which allows the government to marshal its population in times of crisis. Most people still belong to a danwei (work unit), the old socialist organisation through which housing, medical insurance, pensions and mass campaigns are co-ordinated. In flooded regions, these work units have each been allocated sections of the dike to protect, manning dangerous stretches around the clock. In Harbin, state shops are having flood sales to raise money, and danwei as well as individuals have organised food deliveries to the soldiers.

This year's floods come at a time when China's economy is already faltering and rising unemployment is eroding popular faith in the socialist system. "What they are trying to do is to rebuild the social contract through the floods," said Yves Nalet, chief editor of the Taiwan-based China News Analysis, which monitors the mainland press. "This is consistent with [what has happened] every time you have floods; it was the same during [the severe floods of] 1991. The Chinese use natural disasters to try to pull people together, to promote benevolence."

On television and in the newspapers this has meant blanket coverage of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), racing to plug breaches with sandbags, rescuing flood victims, and standing up to their necks in swollen rivers to block the water with their bodies. Every senior party leader has been shown visiting the dikes, megaphone in hand, exhorting the front-line troops to further acts of heroism in the name of the party. To Western eyes it may seem corny, but the propaganda hits all the right buttons with most ordinary Chinese. In the Jianhua grocery store in Peking, Zhang Meizhen, 44, said: "The soldiers are like the pillar of the people. When I saw them standing in the water, I was almost moved to tears."

No one would dispute the efforts of the PLA during this year's floods, but large numbers of other people are strangely absent from the story. Missing for the most part are the dead and the victims. The Chinese media has shown few images of the 14 million flood refugees, or the vast shanty settlements along the tops of the dikes. There is almost no coverage of the gruesome, unhygienic conditions in which millions of homeless are now living; the emphasis instead is on efforts to help them. Nor has there been any proper discussion about the man-made environmental causes of the disaster. And on the most sensitive issue of deaths, no official figure was released between 6 August and yesterday, when the toll was updated to 3,004.

China's propaganda chief, Ding Guangen, has ordered the media to "provide moral support" to flood workers. "More should be done to highlight the civilians, soldiers and officials fighting the floods, and the relief efforts nationwide," he said.

So this is to be the good news flood. To which end, the foreign media have generally been refused permission to visit flood areas.

Dai Qing, the pro-democracy mainland journalist who is the leading opponent of the Three Gorges Dam, dismisses the Chinese media coverage as "even worse than propaganda". "We cannot get the important information, such as how huge the flood is, why some dikes and some embankments fail, and how many people have died. What we see on TV is only how brave the soldiers are, how the people are so moved by the soldiers, and how hard officials are working. I am very, very interested and concerned about the truth about the floods, but I cannot get it."

China's economy with the truth is nothing new. The real death toll of the late Fifties Great Leap Forward famine, estimated at 30 million, has been written out of Chinese history. Closer to the present drama, the collapse of the Banqiao and Shimantan dams in Henan province in 1975 killed an estimated 85,000 people, but has never been publicly reported in China.

To this day, reluctance to publish bad news is more than equalled by patriotic exhortations. According to another People's Daily editorial, thanks to the unity of the Chinese - "harder than iron and stronger than steel" - China "has created one miracle after another on earth". The PLA has declared it will "fight to the death to defend the dikes".

All this is met by a surprising lack of cynicism

among ordinary Chinese. Mr Nalet explained: "It is very difficult for most Chinese to be able to make a judgement on propaganda that goes with feelings and sentiment. When it is politics and economics, they are used to it. When it is people suffering, they have difficulty realising this can also be used for propaganda means." Typical is Ms Liu, 24, in the grocery shop: "The soldiers perform brilliantly. The leaders are good, and the soldiers are better."

As with all propaganda, there is of course a sub-text. The PLA's image is still tarnished by the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, and this summer the military has been publicly blamed by President Jiang Zemin for rampant smuggling, and ordered to dismantle its huge business empire. So what better way to re-establish the army's traditional lustre? Li Ruihuan, a senior Politburo leader, visited Jiujiang city, where soldiers had repaired the ruptured Yangtze dike. "This great deed proved again that the army is great and the army is the people's army," he proclaimed.

The media has been full of soldier heroes. Xie Feng, in Gongan County, Hubei, had rescued 1,200 flooded-out people by boat but - as he told the cameras - rejected his own father's plea to help retrieve the family's belongings from their submerged house. "I cannot do that," soldier Xie told his father. "The army has discipline, and we have another mission to rescue people. You had better do it by yourself." All this could be to the PLA's advantage. "I think the army is also using this as a bargaining chip for their compensation for getting out of business. The army has in fact done a great job," said Mr Nalet.

It is doing the job by hand. In Jiujiang, soldiers strained to heave enormous boulders into the river. In Harbin, they were shown furiously scooping water back into the river using plastic washing-up bowls. Is it possible that the country building the Three Gorges Dam has no water pumps? Said Ms Dai: "We feel shame because now, almost in the 21st century, the soldiers still use 2,000-year-old methods against the floods."

Ms Dai has written three articles for non-mainland magazines this summer, on the environmental damage in China that has exacerbated the situation. "But I have no chance to publish it inside China," she said. Last weekend, the government finally issued an edict that all logging should stop in the upper reaches of the Yangtze. But in the media there can be no debate about why it has taken so many years to acknowledge the human contribution to the annual floods. Only now are water conservancy officials publicly stating that they must do something to stop farmers draining the lakes and encroaching on the natural flood basins. In Hubei, the number of lakes fell from 1,066 in the Fifties to 325 today, according to Chinese figures.

Yet beyond the shortcomings of the propaganda, there is genuine fellow- feeling for the victims and the soldiers. A television charity gala last weekend prompted an avalanche of pledges, and total donations to the central government have now reached 1.76 billion yuan (pounds 136m). One Peking woman said: "I am a laid-off worker, but I'm in better condition than the flood victims. I donated 50 yuan (pounds 4) through my street committee. Whoever saw the scenes of flooded people would offer help."