HONG KONG—China's official media observed an official day of mourning for mudslide victims in the remote western province of Gansu, amid calls for a transparent investigation into the causes of the disaster.
Mainland newspapers and major websites were published in black and white on Sunday, with entertainment programming interrupted on all channels for the special broadcast. Cultural and entertainment events were also canceled.
But Song Shinan, a freelance columnist for Southern Weekend and the popular news portal Sohu.com, said many people in the media are asking themselves what the real story was behind the Zhouqu disaster.
"A lot of people in the media are wondering now to what extent the Zhouqu mudslides were a natural disaster, and to what extent they were man-made," Song said.
"Many people are thinking that there was a lot of tree-felling there—indiscriminate cutting down of trees—and then the water and soil eroded, leading to huge mudslides as soon as the rainstorms came."
Following a series of civil disturbances and disasters that hit China in 2008, Beijing's powerful central propaganda department has stepped up its response to major breaking news, providing fast-paced and detailed coverage from the official agency Xinhua, but banning any other media from generating their own reports.
Beijing-based legal scholar Zhang Zuhua said the movie he was watching late on Saturday was suddenly switched off at midnight.
"Across 200 or more channels, it was the same broadcast," Zhang said. "This government doesn't want people to actually think about this issue on the Internet or in the media."
"What sort of government can manage to change all the channels instantly and simultaneously like that? Surely only Hitler in the Nazi era," he said.
Sichuan-based writer Ran Yunfei said on the microblogging service Twitter that the enforced mourning was in itself an infringement of people's rights.
"Mourning that has no humanity, that lacks the truth, and that doesn't seek out those responsible, is the sort of mourning that simply paves the way for the next disaster," Ran wrote.
Meanwhile, netizens lashed out at President Hu Jintao, whose smiling photograph was the only splash of color in the otherwise somber People's Daily newspaper.
The Web address of the newspaper's front page made the rounds rapidly on social media, with netizens slamming Hu for "smiling when the people are crying."
Beijing-based writer Ling Cangzhou said the incident shows the difference between papers that deliver news and those that deliver propaganda.
"There are some official newspapers that don't make decisions on the basis of news; they do it on the basis of propaganda guidelines," Ling said.
"They wouldn't have felt able to get rid of the color photograph, nor even to print it in black and white," he said.
Political commentators said someone is trying to make Hu Jintao look bad.
"There are a lot of things under fierce debate both at home and overseas at the moment," Beijing Technical University professor Hu Xingdou said.
"That includes whether or not Chinese politics are currently regressing, and whether there is less and less space for debate."
Rescue efforts halted
In Zhouqu, the thousands of soldiers sent to help with the rescue operation said they had stopped digging for survivors in the town, which was split in two by massive flows of mud, sludge, and water in the middle of the night, more than a week ago.
Officials said sludge-blocked roads are still keeping urgent food and medicine from reaching survivors, and rescuers are now focusing on clearing the streets of thick mud and draining floodwaters amid warnings of more torrential rain to come.
The official death toll rose on Monday to 1,254, with 490 others still listed as missing, the state Xinhua news agency reported, citing local authorities.
Chen Wanlian, head of the Hong Kong-based aid organization Social Workers Without Borders, said survivors in Zhouqu county are still traumatized by the disaster.
"We have come across a large number of victims who are still visited by sudden flashbacks of what happened, or of the last time they saw their loved ones," Chen said.
"It might be induced by the actual landslides and mudslides, or by their reaction to seeing all the dead bodies."
"They are haunted by these images both in their sleep and in their waking life."
He called on the authorities to pay close attention to the psychological effects of the mudslides on the survivors, warning that victims might need psychological help if their condition doesn't improve.
Zhouqu county Party secretary Fan Wude promised that the government would not slack off on the rescue operation.
"We will continue to regard rescue work as the most important task in the battle against the floods," Fan said.
"As long as there is a thread of hope, we won't treat it lightly, but continue rescue work to help the victims of this disaster," he said.
Show of respect
Entertainment events at the Shanghai World Expo were canceled in response to the day of mourning.
"All the outside entertainment and cultural events have been canceled in accordance with the national day of mourning for the mudslides in Gansu," an Expo official said.
"Some of the venues have canceled events of their own accord, as well," he said.
Chinese national flags across the country and at embassies and consulates abroad flew at half mast Sunday, official media reported.
Around 10,000 people gathered in Gansu's provincial capital, Lanzhou, to show respect for those killed in the mudslide, the Xinhua news agency said.
"All public entertainment activities, such as movies and karaoke, and online entertainment, including games and music, were ordered to be suspended," the agency reported.
It said new floods and landslides triggered by torrential rains over the past week had hit neighboring Sichuan province, with 120,000 people evacuated from their homes.
Floods and other rain-triggered disasters have left more than 2,300 people dead and 1,200 missing nationwide this year, not including the mudslide casualties.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Xin Yu and in Cantonese by Li Li. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.