Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Flow of Information After the Earthquake

I wasn't on Good Morning America. My mom called and told me that they interviewed some girl fresh into Chengdu who had perfect phone reception. I wonder if now that people realize that Chengdu was hit lightly with few or no deaths that us students are less exciting to talk to. Alas, I'm not famous.

In the interview I recorded with Good Morning America, though, one of the things I mentioned was the total lack of authoritative people telling everyone what to do. After the earthquake, everyone stood outside, gaping at the buildings. Anyone who dared went back inside, anyone who didn't chatted outside. I think in America there would be policemen instantly on the scene, reassuring people to back off until it was declared safe by whoever knew about earthquakes and structural integrity of apartments. On Monday, though, no one really had any information.

That kind of looseness of communication has continued. I read a really interesting NYTimes article about how China's news coverage of the earthquake has been surprisingly similar to the way catastrophes are covered in the West. Since the earthquake, though, I haven't heard anyone tell people what's going on, only what has gone on.

Despite a lack of reliable information, information has continued. The earthquake happened around 2:30pm Monday, the Chinese all became convinced that at 4:33, or some time equally precise, there would be a major aftershock. Accordingly, the guards to our apartment didn't let us back in from 4:30-5:00. There was no aftershock.

After that, a rumor spread that at 8:00 there would be an aftershock. This expectation was also happily disappointed.

After that, our Chinese friend told us that at 3:00am there would be an aftershock. We were highly skeptical, and asked how anyone could predict something like that. "My dad is a reporter," she said. "But how does he know?" "He's a reporter."

That night, nothing happened until 4am.

There may be more to all this than I know, since I'm not Chinese. Information seems to distribute itself horizontally, though, and to us Westerners we wonder how any information that doesn't have a clear origin can be true.

The latest example happened only a few minutes ago. Our former program director (since our semester ended last week, she doesn't have to take care of us, but does anyway) called me and said very urgently, "You need to go buy water." This seemed like a strange request, since we've had water for the past two days, and gas and electricity to purify it with, but I assented. "I don't know why," she continued, "but I hear that everyone is supposed to buy water, because there might be a need for it soon. I'm not sure why, but I just wanted to let you know."

I assured her that I was grateful not to be out of the frenetic loop, but took her advice very casually. We have water in our apartment, and as long as water comes out of the tap, we can boil it and have water to drink. In fact, we can boil up a pot now and be set for a few days. I dutifully went to the store next door to buy some water, though, and saw that they were sold out. So was every store until the large convenience store at the end of the block. There people looked like they were preparing for a siege, and it wasn't just water that was sold out. Lines were 20 people deep, and when there are lines in stores in China, you know it must be serious. I wonder if these people heard a different directive that instructed them to buy everything they could lay their hands on; I don't know.

But it sure is different trying to respond to an emergency in China. The lemming strategy that I see makes for quite a community united in response, which feels very powerful, even if water is being bought out for little reason.

EDIT: And sometimes there's validity in rumors. We just heard that the water supply is somehow contaminated from the earthquake... I don't know how that could have just happened, but I hope it doesn't stay this way long. I accidentally just washed my hands and hope it doesn't make me die.


Sheri said...

this is probably one of those times when if you could read the newspaper and understand perfectly the news, even talk radio, you'd know much better how and why people are doing what they are. Seems to me that rumors are an important way of getting information around after a natural catastrophe- whether the info is true or not.
My thanks to Director Wen for her care of you all there. No doubt she'd rather be thinking just of her own family and now she has these foreigners to be responsible for too.

Mom said...

As your mom, this post could worry me. Happily, I know you're flying out of town on Friday to start your adventures... so (and this sounds so selfish I can barely say it) even if there are long-term difficulties, at least MY boy won't be there for them.
And, in our phone call, you said there is plenty of food and water (at least so far) in restaurants, where you eat your meals anyway, so I'm ok. Isn't it amazing that you are there for such a time as this? You are seeing history happen with your own eyes!

Ardeth said...

Hi Will, This was on our Internet:
In Chengdu, water to some parts of the city was cut for repairs, touching off a rumor that the supply was contaminated. People began hoarding water and water pressure citywide dropped before a senior official went on TV to deny anything was wrong.
Associated Press writers Christopher Bodeen and Bill Foreman in Dujiangyan contributed to this report.

Mom for Nainai said...

HI Will, Nainai says she read all your blogs, even though she had to go into the ladybug-room to do so. She sends her love and says that your blogs are so nice to read. Thanks for writing them and keeping everyone up to date.