Date: Sat, 18 May 2013 17:57:52 +0200
China's national mourning period
- BEIJING - At 2:28 this afternoon, China crossed a new threshold in national unity. Here in the capital and elsewhere across this vast nation, horns blared and sirens wailed for three minutes to mark exactly one week since the massive (now 8.0 by official Chinese calculations) earthquake rocked Wenchuan County in Sichuan Province, taking the lives of close to 33,000 people so far. Of course, the Xinhua news agency, the official news agency here in China, has reported that the number is expected to reach as many as 50,000 dead. On top of that, well over 200,000 people have been injured, many of them seriously. The number of homeless, though uncalculated at this point, will eclipse both those figures in multiples that are very hard to fathom. The scale of human tragedy in Southwestern China is immense. Probably much more than the average person can comprehend. But what has been evident over the past week here in China is just how much the average person has rallied around this disaster.
Watching the television news coverage of the mass rally in Tian'anmen Square following the official three minutes of mourning, it was readily apparent that this disaster has unified people in a way that other things, such as the Olympics and other historical political campaigns (see: Cultural Revolution), have not. Compared to things like, for example, the Torch Relay, which rallied mainly frustrated youth behind a nationalistic cause, the earthquake has brought everyone together. Young and old, affluent and poor, could all be seen in the pictures from Tian'anmen Square, chanting 中国加油 (Zhongguo Jiayou, or 'Power to China') in unison. And while, at times, pundits have been critical of perceived nationalism here in China, this time around, the unity of the Chinese people is being directed at the most altruistic cause; Chinese people helping each other.
Further to this, the government has sanctioned three days of official national mourning. This is the first time this has happened to honor average Chinese citizens. (In the past, the deaths of national leaders like Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping have been marked by official mourning, but nothing on this scale) And to coincide with the mourning period, the media here has suspended basically anything that smacks of entertainment. It's being reported that newspapers will only use black font on their front pages during this period. Music programs on radio stations have been suspended and replaced by news and analysis of the quake and television stations are running continual coverage of the relief efforts. It's a very unique time here in China right now. But the question that is starting to be asked within media circles is just how long this will remain the focus of the nation's full attention?
I remember vividly in North America following 9/11 that we started asking ourselves as journalists and media organizations just how long it would be before we could, or should, start talking about other things about a week-and-a-half after the terrorist attacks. Of course, news of the event and the subsequent fallout remained the top story for weeks after the two towers crumbled to the ground. But it remains a delicate point for the media every time a massive catastrophe like this takes place. How much time do you dedicate exclusively to this before life moves on and other issues begin to be discussed again? I don't think there is any hard and fast answer to this question. Generally the theory is to gauge the mood of the public. That in itself can be a difficult thing to do, because people's emotions range widely when disasters like this take place.
No one in their right mind could diminish the scope of this disaster and the outpouring of grief that the Chinese people have been expressing for their countrymen. But just how long this will last is a somewhat unprecedented question here in China, and something that I suspect will be debated more and more as the days press forward.