When the March 11 earthquake hit north-eastern Japan, I was preparing an article on Libya. After the earthquake struck, though, we dropped the Libya article and within a day had planned 16 special reports related to the massive 9.0 temblor.
This is just one small example of the Chinese media’s enormous interest in the earthquake and tsunami. In the days since it struck, China’s media coverage of the crisis has been comprehensive. We dispatched four reporters to Fukushima, who travelled within 22 kilometres of the stricken Daiichi nuclear power plant (the Japanese government had ordered a 20-kilometre exclusion zone from the plant, while residents living within 30 kilometres were asked to evacuate).
Chinese media interest in the unfolding events in Japan has been matched by that of the general public—an official from the Japanese Embassy in China told me that over the past few days, many Chinese have called up the embassy to express their condolences. Their gestures touched the Japanese staff. Some Chinese also reportedly went to the embassy to make donations.
Of course it hasn’t all been positive. Some took to Internet chat rooms to gloat over the disaster, with a number of netizens suggesting that it was God’s will because of Japan’s supposed failure to properly admit its guilt over World War II. But others responded that such natural disasters are a threat to everyone, and that by helping our fellow men and women, we are really also helping ourselves.
Many Chinese have expressed genuine sympathy for the impact on Japan, and have expressed awe at the way Japanese have maintained such social discipline in the face of the hardships they are now confronted with. Major Chinese media outlets also reported that some ordinary Japanese were swept away by the tsunami while trying to save about 20 Chinese students, and they praised their bravery.
In my opinion, even though the earthquake was a catastrophe, it’s also an opportunity to ease diplomatic tensions between Japan and China. Chinese President Hu Jintao, for example, visited the Japanese Embassy to pay his respects—a rare move in recent years.
More generally, there have also been calls on the Web asking people to buy Japanese products during this difficult period (excluding, of course, agricultural products that have been exposed to radiation).
Speaking of radiation, this is perhaps the issue that the Chinese are most concerned about. An All Nippon Airways cargo plane from Tokyo bound for China’s Dalian was reportedly refused permission to land due to radiation fears, for example.
And there has also been a run on salt along China’s southeast coast following rumours that iodine in it can prevent radiation sickness. It’s a silly response, but mainland Chinese aren’t alone in this kind of overreaction—the number of Chinese buying salt in New York’s Chinatown has also apparently recently risen.