In the past week, the international congress of anthropologists that was going to take place in Kunming in mid-July was cancelled without explanation, clearly on orders from the authorities. The congress had been five years in the making and was going to have thousands of participants, among them prominent scholars.
Then came the Burma cyclone. I had expected that China will seize the opportunity to improve its image that had been tarnished by the Tibetan protests and the anti-Tibetan protests by offering a really big and visible aid package, which the Burmese junta would have accepted, unlike attempts of Western aid. But the central government did not offer any major aid; only Guangxi Province announced a $250,000 donation.
So I began wondering whether the government decided that it simply did not care any more about what ‘whitey’ thought — or whether it was genuinely afraid that there might be more violent protests or even terrorist acts in China, and so the uncontrolled presence of foreigners would be both undesired and unsafe for them. (I was told by a friend that student services staff at a university in central China had been told about the planned bombing of a police station, and instructed to persuade students not to demonstrate in the streets if anything should happen.) I was even thinking that there might have been a hardline power reshuffle in the Party leadership.
On the other hand, now everybody praises the government and the Chinese media for the openness they have displayed in reporting on the earthquake. An article in the New York Times says that Internet “chat rooms has been full of praise for the government’s emergency response.” That much, of course, has been true since the Tibet riots; indeed, there has been a groundswell of support for the Party on the Internet. But still, the openness in the reporting seems to be interpreted as a conscious attempt to gain international kudos:
Shi Anbin, a professor of media studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said he thought the international uproar after the crackdown in Tibet was having an impact on Communist Party leaders. “My judgment is that the government has drawn some lessons from negative feedback,” he said. “I think it reflects a trend of Chinese openness and reform.”
So what to make of all this?