Blogging a Quake, Live from Chengdu


Bloggers unite amid catastrophe in China's Sichuan province, raising questions about whether the death toll could have been lower

Song Shi-nan, a blogger from the hipster Bullog blogging community, was blogging in Chengdu when an earthquake began swaying his apartment building and his computer screen on May 12. "I went to the balcony and saw all the buildings around were shaking…I rushed downstairs and saw many people gathering there, mostly women, children and elderly.…" A few hours after the quake struck, Song wrote, "there might be a blackout soon, and we must get out. So I took out the camping stuff and thought maybe I should just go camping with my wife tonight."

Song found it outrageous that TV news reporting on the earthquake was still emphasizing that Beijing's main Olympics stadium, the "Bird's Nest," had suffered no damage from the earthquake, as thousands of people were dying elsewhere in the nation. In the meantime, his TV screen was showing that in the worst hit areas in southern China's Sichuan province, middle school buildings collapsed in villages and parents were digging into the wreckage trying to find their children.

The earthquake, measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale, rocked Sichuan province in southwest China on May 12. The center of the earthquake was less than 80 miles northwest of the provincial capital of Chengdu, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. But it was felt thousands of miles away by people around China, from Beijing to Shanghai and Guangzhou. Office buildings and apartment buildings swayed and people fled their homes and cubicles for the streets in downtown areas of those cities. So far, Chinese authorities report 8,700 people were killed in the earthquake, with an unknown number still trapped in debris.

Blogging a Natural Disaster

One famous Chinese blogger, the television reporter Luqiu Luwei, raised a few questions on her blog: Why were so many middle school students among the dead from the disaster? What did that say about the quality of those school buildings? Official media reported that hundreds of students died in the Sichuan earthquake, as they were pinned under the collapsing buildings.

Another blogger, Zeng XianNan, was suspicious about whether the quake could have been predicted based on seismic activity. "I saw the Sichuan Net news quoting Sichuan Earthquake Bureau official Deng Chang Wen saying before the earthquake no forecast indicated any macro anomolies," Zeng wrote. "If this was true, then it means that our technology is not strong enough. But wasn't [it true] that we have successfully forecast earthquakes before? If it were the case that it was detected but reporting was delayed, how would [they] explain that?"

In Baidu Post Bar, a popular Internet forum, thousands of people around China were posting their accounts on what was happening in their region, as if it could make them feel safer and better. Elsewhere online, three college students in Chengdu, the home of 11 million people, shot a short video during the earthquake and posted it on Tudou, a major user-generated video-sharing site in China. The video was later removed, but it was not clear why. (Tudou means potato in English.)

Twitter Excels. Government Fails?

According to Rory Cellan-Jones, a tech blogger on the BBC's Web site, Twitter has seen an unprecedented role in covering the latest earthquake news in China this time around. California-based technology blogger Robert Scoble—who says he receives a Twitter message every second—claimed he broke the Sichuan earthquake news on the Internet even before the U.S. Geological Survey.

A writer named "Necessity" posting May 12 on a site maintained by Chinese living abroad, argued that many natural disasters in China are related to government failing in one form or another. "Necessity" offered the previous examples of the SARS disease spread, the large number of deaths in China's periodic mining disasters, and the so-called three-year natural food disaster, during which millions starved to death.

Eva Woo is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com .

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