Talking Points
April 14 - 28, 2010

Nearly 1,800 people died in the quake that hit Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture


Tibetan students from Southwest Minzu University seek donations for earthquake relief in Chengdu. Photo by treasuresthouhast (Creative Commons).

榆树藏族自治州 in China’s southern Qinghai province on April 14. Many thousands were injured and an estimated 100,000 are homeless. Our sympathies are with the people of Yushu and we cheer those working hard to assist them. A partial list of organizations soliciting funds to aid Yushu is below.

The death toll might have been greater but for the fact that the 7:49 am quake struck well before the start of the work or school day. Clocks in Qinghai, like those throughout China, are set to Beijing time, but since Yushu is 1,905 kilometers (1,190 miles) west of Beijing, sunrise was about 7:05 am. Qinghai is a poor province and Yushu is an especially poor area. According to 2009 government statistics, Yushu’s per capita GDP was $1,455, about 39% of the $3,742 national average. Not surprisingly, many homes were built using unreinforced cement blocks or mud bricks. The quake reduced many of these to rubble. In one town, Jiegu, 85% of the homes are said to have been destroyed. Karamibu, a Tibetan plateau-based photographer visited Jiegu on April 17.

See larger images in the web version of Talking Points.

Chinese authorities quickly dispatched large numbers of rescue and relief workers, machinery, and supplies. The challenges are many, including the altitude (Yushu is 4,000 meters (13,125 feet) above sea level), below freezing nighttime temperatures, and language problems. Almost all (97%) of Yushu’s roughly 300,000 residents are Tibetan. The government reported it was bringing in 500 translators to help.

Quickly and effectively responding to such emergencies has become a priority for China’s leaders. And conveying this to the masses has become a core mission of China’s state media. Premier Wen Jiabao visited the area right away, telling rescuers to push harder in their search for survivors. Standing on a pile of debris he told the people of Yushu “your suffering is our suffering.” Earlier today, Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao, having cut short a trip to Latin America, flew in to Yushu. Chinese television broadcast scenes from his visit, including a stop at a makeshift hospital, where he told an injured high school student that she had a bright future and that “Grandpa will be thinking of you.” Senior party leader Li Changchun hurried back from Turkey to meet with media chiefs in Beijing. Li began by offering an evaluation of their coverage. He said they’d done a good job of showing the progress of relief work, highlighting Hu Jintao’s leadership and the party’s policy of putting people first, and displaying the work of the army and others. Li stressed that the media needed to make solidarity across ethnic lines a central message as well.

Ethnic unrest broke out in Yushu and in many other places on the Tibetan plateau in 2008. There have been no reports of violence between Tibetans and others in the aftermath of the earthquake, but some foreign news organizations report that suspicions and tensions remain. The New York Times described an instance where an army crew, which had given up searching, pushed a group of monks aside so that the soldiers could be filmed rescuing a trapped girl. Monks have handled the cremation of the dead. People`s Daily reported Friday the mobilization of religious and cultural affairs officials to address damage to temples and hardships imposed on monks and others. 700 year old Changde Temple in Jiegu was among the hardest hit by the quake. Some 31 monks perished when buildings there collapsed.

The official Xinhua news site for Yushu prefecture has not been updated since August 2009 (and even includes links to MSN and Google). It listed Jia Yingzhong, a Han who had been assigned to Yushu in 2000, as the prefecture’s party secretary. A Tibetan is the prefecture head, though the site only gives his Chinese name, Wang Yuhu 王玉虎. Yushu got a brand new government website earlier today. Many of the links don’t yet work, but the presence of top leaders and rescue teams is highlighted in the banner.


The South China Morning Post reported that China’s Central Publicity Office ordered local news organizations to use centrally-cleared reports and to recall reporters they may have dispatched to Yushu. A similar order was issued in 2008 when Sichuan was hit by an even more destructive quake. And as in 2008, local media organizations seem to have at least partially ignored the order. Some idea of the coverage can be seen by comparing the front pages of select newspapers.

Dongguan Times, April 15
"400 killed, 10,000 injured"

Wuhan Evening News, April 19
"There will be new schools! There will be new homes!"

See the web version of Talking Points for 7 more front pages.

International news organizations have also sent reporters and camera crews to Yushu, though some have thus far elected to cover the tragedy and responses to it from Beijing. Resources are always constrained and news organizations must often make hard choices in deciding which stories to pursue and in how to go about covering them.

These choices and the hard work of carrying them out are an important part of the new


Photo by Jim Laurie, then of ABC News.

USC US-China Institute documentary Assignment: China. The documentary looks at how correspondents for American news organizations sought to bring China alive for print and broadcast audiences. We’re screening a rough cut of one segment of the documentary at USC this Wednesday and hope you will join us. This segment focuses on the period right after the US and China reestablished diplomatic relations in 1979. The segment features interviews with reporters who did much to shape our understanding of China as well as one of the Chinese officials charged with managing them and one individual eager to share an “unapproved” story. Click here to see a three minute trailer for the segment.

There are many China-focused events and exhibitions across North America this month. Details about them are below and in the calendar section of our website. The website also features our Talking Points archive (including a recent discussion of earthquakes in East Asia and the US), our collection of documents relating to US-China ties and contemporary China, information about fellowships and calls for papers, and many video resources. K-12 teachers are reminded that USCI is offering a special one-day workshop on May 1 on using Asian case studies to teach about human rights.

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Earthquake Relief
Support for Yushu relief has come from many organizations and government agencies. Here are three organizations accepting donations specifically for Yushu relief:

United States Fund for UNICEF

Red Cross Society of China

Direct Relief International