Where angles and devils meet -- China's Internet in quake aftermath
www.chinaview.cn 2008-05-23 20:22:15   Print
Special report: Strong Earthquake Jolts SW China  

    By Xinhua writer Qiu Lin

    BEIJING, May 23 (Xinhua) -- When a video clip surfaced on YouTube showing Zhang Ya cursing Wenchuan earthquake victims with lots of profane words, a small earthquake was triggered in China's Internet community.

    Millions of Chinese Internet users posted furious condemnation messages, accusing the 21-year-old girl of "no humanity," "insulting the victims" and calling her "scum".

    In the near-5-minute video, Zhang, a native of Shenyang, capital of the northeastern Liaoning Province, showed that she was annoyed with the three day period of national mourning during which she could neither watch her favorite television programs nor play any games online. Shockingly, the girl chose to vent her anger through throwing nasty words upon the victims of the Sichuan quake, whose number has now topped 55,000.

    "We respect the freedom of speech on the Internet, but we will not tolerate that she insulted the victims and survivors in Sichuan," one responding post read.

    Despite the humiliating case of Zhang, the Internet, which enjoyed a stunning growth in China over the past decade and witnessed the nation overtake the United States to boast the world's largest Internet user population of 221 million, has played a fairly positive role in China's coping with the national calamity.

    Ever since the 8.0-magnitude earthquake struck Wenchuan County in the southwestern Sichuan Province at 2:28 p.m. on May 12, the Internet has acted as a major platform for quake relief, with tens of millions of Internet users taking to the Web to offer their help.

    Posts calling for donations, self-organizing volunteer groups, spreading information and suggesting rescue approaches flooded web portals and forums.

    Zhang Qi, a student at Culinary Institute of Sichuan, is originally from Wenchuan, the epicenter area. After knowing all roads to Wenchuan had been cut off by the earthquake and landslides that followed, and rescuers had major trouble to reach the epicenter by air due to the mountainous landscape of this valley county, she realized that a construction field near her home village was probably a good location for helicopter landing.

    Her online post was quickly transferred to all major Chinese forums. Hours later the girl received a phone call from the emergency headquarter, asking for more detailed description. Ultimately her information helped the air force to find its way into Wenchuan.

    Shortly after the quake, as Wenchuan turned inaccessible, posts looking for missing or unreachable relatives there appeared on popular online communities like Baidu Tieba and Tianya.cn. These communities soon set up special message boards dedicated for users to find relatives or friends in the quake-hit areas and to seek help in case of emergency. Even irrelevant strangers often clicked into these post boards to leave messages of blessings and encouragement.

    Google China also launched a tool which enables users to search people information in various BBS, so anxious users do not need to check each main BBS to find their loved ones.

    As rescue and relief efforts in the quake-hit areas became the top concern of most Chinese over the past 10 days, the Internet offered a platform for people to share all information and follow up the latest developments. Apart from reports from the news media, on-the-scene accounts, pictures and video clips from survivors, eyewitnesses, volunteers and other ordinary citizens were also frequently uploaded to the Web through blogging or podcasting.

    "Chinese Internet users have become a major force in spreading information. They can complement to the organizational holes and fill up the vacuum. They've played an important role in communications in the rescue work," said Yu Guoming, president of the Media Research Institute at the Beijing-based Renmin University of China.

    Another Beijing media expert who asked not to be identified added that the participation of the Internet users helped cover some blind spots of the news media, giving a further push to the trend of information transparency and public supervision.

    In a latest typical example, Internet users in Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan, exposed a possible scandal of some Chengdu residents' alleged misappropriation of tents prepared for homeless survivors in the quake-razed towns and villages.

    Seeing media reports based on tips from the Internet users, the Chinese authorities have pledged immediate probe into the case and severe punishment for those found guilty.

    The Internet also served as a main channel for the Chinese to mourn for the quake dead and convey condolences to their families. Almost all main Web portals opened message boards for users to offer prayers and blessings, and more than 650,000 people had left their prayers on Sina.com's Webpage alone as of May 23.

    While many showed their angelic sides in the aftermath of the deadly tremor, the Internet community in China was still far from being a paradise.

    Police in northern China have arrested at least four people for fabricating and spreading earthquake-related rumors online to stirup public panic and seek personal benefits, according to the Ministry of Public Security.

    The four were accused of spreading rumors on their personal blogs and some BBS communities soon after the Sichuan earthquake, saying that a strong earthquake will soon hit Beijing and that theSichuan temblor was manmade, the ministry said. Apparently, the rumors were created to boost traffic to their blogs, the ministry added.

    Meanwhile, reports of donation fraud also appeared online. The scams were done via fake donation Webpages on popular Website portals, phone calls, and mobile phone short messages.

    "The Internet is prone to spread and blow up sentiments. When the whole nation is faced with disaster, the Internet inevitably becomes the platform for conflicts of views and outlet of emotions," said Zhou Xuan, a professor at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing.

    In the case of Zhang Ya of Liaoning, following her insulting video's appearance online, at least a dozen "cursing-back videos" were uploaded to YouTube overnight, some of which showed the indignant speakers cursing Zhang and her whole family with words much more profane and vicious than her original version.

    "I can understand their fury and overreaction, as Zhang's remarks did challenge the bottom line of humanity," said a Beijing Internet user with the Web name Thorn Bird. "But I can't agree with the way they expressed themselves, which virtually made them no difference from Zhang."

    Although "verbal violence" on the Internet is not illegal in China, it's a real disgrace to the nation for anyone to act like riffraff on the Internet, he said.

    "The case of Zhang has showed how far it is for the Chinese Internet community to grow mature and rational, and how arduous the job is to purify the country's online environment," he added.

Editor: Feng Tao
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