HONG KONG—China's powerful propaganda department has called for curbs on reporting of negative news about the earthquake that struck Yushu county in western China’s Qinghai province this month, ahead of the opening of the Shanghai World Expo this weekend.
In its April 25 directive to news organizations, the central propaganda department warned state media not to focus too much on the relief work carried out by Tibetans themselves in the worst-hit regions of the remote province.
"Talk of the earthquake in 'scientific terms'; do not criticize the earthquake forecasting agency; do not focus too much on the efforts by Buddhist monks to help the victims; and give extensive coverage to the appeals for donations organised by state-owned CCTV," the directive said.
Tibetan residents of Yushu, where more than 2,000 people—mostly Tibetans—died in the April 14 quake, said state-run media coverage of the rescue and clean-up operation was already far from reflecting the situation on the ground.
"For us poor farmers, the real help came from monks from different monasteries, both for those who are dead and those who survived," a Tibetan man resident in Yushu county said.
"Now the Chinese authorities have driven all the Tibetan monks from the area."
He said newspapers and television news were full of reports covering the government relief effort in detail, but that they didn't always correspond with reality for many Tibetans.
"A week back it was reported in a local Chinese paper that all the families of the deceased will be compensated with 8,000 yuan and survivors with 800 yuan," he said, adding, "None of us has received even a single yuan."
Carefully crafted drama
He said that while many Chinese soldiers did arrive in the area, their priority was to rescue staff at the damaged military complexes, government offices, and family members of Chinese officials.
"It was a drama," he said.
"Many soldiers dug up dead bodies from the ruins when media cameras arrived in the area but abandoned them when the media crews left the site."
"In the same way, they dug through ruins and rubble when the reporters arrived with TV cameras and communication equipment, but ignored them when the TV crews left."
The Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders called the propaganda ruling "paternalistic and conservative."
"We call for an end to censorship of the consequences of the Qinghai earthquake," the group said in a statement on its Web site.
It also called for the release of Qinghai-based Tibetan writer Shogdung, also known as Tagyal, who was arrested last week after he criticized the relief effort.
Tagyal, was one of eight intellectuals who signed an April 17 letter that expressed sorrow over the disaster and urged wariness of Chinese government relief efforts.
Massive show planned
Analysts said the move was an attempt to project the best possible image of China as President Hu Jintao and other top leaders prepared to host a spectacular opening ceremony in front of world leaders on Saturday.
Wu Fan, editor-in-chief of the U.S.-based online magazine Chinese Affairs, said the Party leadership wanted to make sure that nothing marred the experience.
"The Shanghai World Expo is China's biggest opportunity of recent years to show off diplomatically and politically in front of the whole world," Wu said.
"They are doing this for their own prestige," he said.
"Domestically they are harsh and oppressive, but to the foreigners they show off how rich they are."
Deputy propaganda minister Cai Mingzhao recently told a publicity meeting that Beijing took the propaganda work surrounding the Shanghai World Expo very seriously.
Shanghai was counting down Friday to the opening of the 2010 World Expo, which will be attended by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and other world leaders.
The six-month Expo, which will cost Beijing at least U.S.$4 billion, is expecting to attract 70 million visitors to pavilions from almost 200 coutries. The theme is sustainable urban living.
Local authorities, determined to prevent crimes or disturbances that could mar the Expo, have tightened their enforcement of a ban on protests or public criticism of the ruling Communist Party.
Original reporting in Tibetan by Lobsang Chophel, and in Mandarin by Xi Wang. Tibetan service director: Jigme Ngapo. Translated from the Tibetan by Karma Dorjee. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated from the Chinese and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.