Chinese media keep to Beijing's script for quake reports

Beijing (AFP) - He was one of the first Chinese reporters to reach the earthquake epicentre, but the rows of hastily wrapped bodies at the roadside held no news value for the television cameraman.

In a single frame, the 150-odd corpses left at the entrance to Longtoushan -- by relatives hoping relief workers could bury their dead -- encapsulated the scale of the disaster and the carnage it had wreaked on the community in southwestern Yunnan.

But they did not fit into China's officially preferred narrative, and the cameraman pressed on. "People want to see heroism," he told an AFP reporter.

Last week's earthquake killed more than 600 people in China's biggest natural disaster since President Xi Jinping took over as head of the ruling Communist party almost two years ago.

The country's state-run media took the opportunity to highlight the role played by top officials, and the efficiency of the response, as key themes.

The coverage stuck rigidly to the agenda, with hardly an errant word or image, in a reflection of the discipline exerted under Xi, who has overseen a widespread crackdown on independent freedom of expression ?- which was already subject to strict constraints.

Xi had ordered "all out efforts" to help the victims, the official news agency Xinhua reported.

Premier Li Keqiang went to the scene the following day to "arrange efficient rescue and relief for victims", Xinhua added, walking for five kilometres (three miles) to reach Longtoushan.

The day after the earthquake, the People's Daily, the Communist Party's official mouthpiece and China's biggest-selling newspaper featured an image of paramilitary police rescuing the wounded on its front page.

For the next two days, it put pictures of Li at the scene on page one.

Xinhua cited an academic saying that the "timely allocation of resources for disaster relief also reflects the philosophy of the new Chinese leadership, which puts people at the centre of governance".

Television reports repeatedly showed images of rescue teams carrying survivors, medical staff tending to patients and police directing traffic and bringing order to the disaster zone.

"The state-sponsored press has adhered largely to officially sanctioned themes, including the responsiveness of the central government and military," said Nicholas Dynon, who researches Chinese media and propaganda at Macquarie University in Sydney.

Other key messages included the "swiftness and professionalism of rescue and recovery efforts", he added. "These themes reinforce the key messages that authorities have reacted appropriately and that the nation is united in its support."

Li's visit followed in the footsteps of his predecessor Wen Jiabao, who would commonly don his New Balance trainers and meet disaster victims with rolled-up sleeves, earning him the nickname "Grandpa Wen" and building his "man-of-the-people" credentials.

But China's "disaster reportage is staying more on-message than was the case under the previous Hu Jintao administration", Dynon said, adding that Xi views the media's role as "correctly guiding public opinion".

Xi's name has appeared in the People's Daily more frequently than any other leader since Communist China?s founding father Mao Zedong, Hong Kong researchers found last month.

- Muddy water -

China's leaders are driven by maintaining stability, and were rocked by the reporting in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake in May 2008, which claimed the lives of more than 80,000 people.

Among them were more than 5,000 children, killed in their schools as the shoddily-constructed buildings crumbled around them.

Journalists flocked to the disaster zone, and as reports of corruption in the school building programme mounted -- testing Beijing's rhetoric on media openness in the run-up to the Olympics -- so did popular anger against officialdom, although to this day no-one has been prosecuted over the collapses.

Yunnan neighbours Sichuan in southwestern China, and while this month's quake was far weaker -- magnitude 6.1, compared to 7.9 in 2008 according to US Geological Survey figures -- it also sent educational facilities crashing to the ground, among them the dormitory at Longquan Secondary School in Longtoushan.

By sheer chance it struck outside term time.

But Chinese media instead focused on the buildings erected in the wake of the 2008 quake, which withstood the latest tremor.

While there had been "some negative press around non-quake-resistant buildings", Dynon said, "these feature neither prominently nor extensively".

Instead, stories on the bravery of soldiers and relief workers dominated coverage, along with the rescues of two survivors three days after the quake.

But the focus on the professionalism and sacrifice of the military threatened to backfire after one particular photo-opportunity appeared to go too far.

News reports showing soldiers eating noodles made with muddy water raised concerns in online chatrooms about the army's preparedness and water-purification equipment.

Other commentators on Sina Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter, questioned whether the scenario was staged, given that the disaster zone was awash with bottled water.

One posted: "Propaganda is struggling to adapt to modern times."