Propaganda machine in overdrive for China shipwreck

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (centre) inspects the rescue efforts of the capsized tourist ship in the Yangtze River in Jianli county, Hubei province, China on June 3, 2015. -- PHOTO: EPA
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (centre) inspects the rescue efforts of the capsized tourist ship in the Yangtze River in Jianli county, Hubei province, China on June 3, 2015. -- PHOTO: EPA

BEIJING (AFP) - All hands on deck: China's propaganda machine has cranked into top gear after a ship disaster, extolling the official response while dousing any public criticism and tightly controlling foreign media.

Thousands of police, soldiers and rescue workers were dispatched to the banks of the Yangtze, where the "Eastern Star" capsized on Monday evening with more than 450 people on board. But with only 14 survivors found, there is little hope for the rest.

Premier Li Keqiang has been the omnipresent face of the rescue operation since Tuesday morning.

"The sleeves-rolled-up, megaphone-in-hand image of the premier directing rescue efforts at the scene has become a recurring feature of China's domestic media coverage of disasters," said Nicholas Dynon, an expert in Chinese media at Macquarie University in Sydney.

The Chinese media on Wednesday also gave prominent coverage of the "miraculous" rescue of Zhu Hongmei, who was pulled from the upturned hull of the boat.

The 65-year-old woman was shown being hoisted to safety in a concerted effort by divers and rescue workers.

It was a scene perfectly in keeping with the communist line of society coming together to support each other in times of trouble.

In contrast, the New York Times ran a photograph of a corpse fished from the river on the front page of its international edition, a more jarring image suggesting that the toll will be high.

Communist Party leaders are well aware that missteps over a major disaster can quickly turn to criticism of their effectiveness at governing.

A deadly high-speed train crash in July 2011 triggered an torrent of criticism that authorities had compromised safety in their rush to expand the network.

Deadly floods in Beijing in 2012 and a stampede which killed 36 people at last New Year's Eve in Shanghai also stirred a barrage of criticism of the authorities.

And Beijing is aware of the serious repercussions from the sinking of the Sewol ferry in South Korea - a disaster with many parallels - which saw the prime minister resign.

Unsurprisingly under these conditions, Chinese media have been told to use only the official Xinhua news agency and state CCTV television as their sources to cover the tragedy, according to instructions aired by China Digital Times, a website that monitors Chinese media and Internet.

The leaked statement included instructions to recall journalists who were already at the site of the disaster.

Authorities have largely limited official access for foreign journalists to brief trips along the river, and roadblocks are sited about 2km from the capsized vessel.

"Media at the scene of the sinking has been restricted, including foreign media, which is unsurprising," Dynon told AFP.

"For Beijing, this is an exercise in managing domestic emotions, which means controlling unequivocal messaging around who exactly are the heroes and who are the villains," he said.

At the main press briefing Wednesday, no questions were taken and no figures on deaths or survivors were given - but Guan Dong, one of the divers who brought two survivors out of the water, gave his gripping account of the rescue.

Li's activism has taken centre stage. Over the course of 24 hours he was seen holding a crisis meeting on his plane, poring over a map, then giving orders to rescue workers in front of the largely submerged hull of the capsized vessel.

Reports on Wednesday also showed Li, wearing a hospital gown, at the bedside of a survivor.

The message to the masses is clear: the top leadership of the party oversees operations down to the last detail and the victims are not forgotten.

"While there clearly has been no news blackout as such, there has been a careful coverage management favouring stories about the rescue effort, the role of political leaders and the measures taken by the state to swiftly respond," Dynon said.

The propaganda drive was illustrated in a report by, the news portal run by the Beijing city party commission, on a Weibo post that was reposted more than 100,000 times in one day.

It quoted a news report saying that authorities had limited the water flow coming out of the Three Gorges Dam to reduce the speed downstream, where rescue work was ongoing.

"(I) could see the responsibility and capability of leading the whole country to prioritise people's life," the post by netizen Dong Mai Ying read. "I really doubt any other country than China has such determination and capability to do this." The report has been reposted by mainstream media outlets including Xinhua and CCTV's websites.

Yet on Wednesday, "Eastern Star" was the most censored term on Weibo, according to Free Weibo, which copies and republished censored Weibo posts.

From a wider perspective, whenever disaster strikes China the authorities seek to sweep aside any negative elements that could tarnish the reputation of the one-party state, such as suggestions of unsafe public transport, lax security or standards not being respected.

"Ultimately, Beijing's primary audience is its citizens, and satisfying international media demand comes a very distant second," said Dynon.

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