Passport

Has the world stopped caring about massacres in Syria?

On May 25, 2012, 108 people were murdered in the Syrian town of Houla. Gruesome videos of woman and children slaughtered in their homes spread like wildfire across the Internet, the United Nations issued a report that attempted to discern exactly what happened, and the United States expelled Syria's top diplomat in Washington.

Fast-forward 11 months: The Syrian military has reportedly launched an offensive in the Damascus suburbs of Jdeidet al-Fadl and Jdeidet al-Artouz -- part of a broader effort to secure the capital from rebel assault -- and the Local Coordination Committees of Syria are reporting that more than 400 people have been massacred. Other opposition networks cite a lower death toll, but still point to a significant loss of life: The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, for instance, is reporting that 101 people have been documented killed, but that the final death toll could exceed 250 Syrians.

The two events may be equally horrifying, but there are few similarities in the international response to them. The coverage of Jdeidet al-Fadl and Jdeidet al-Artouz has been limited to a few newspaper articles -- top U.S. officials have not felt compelled to respond, and the United Nations has not sprung into action.

Part of the reason for the lack of an international response this time around is the absence of any information coming from the Damascus suburbs. Even though Jdeidet al-Artouz is only about 10 miles from the center of Damascus, the Syrian military has locked down the area -- no journalists or NGOs have been able to get close enough to report on what is going on. The lockdown is also preventing information from getting out of the towns, which explains the murkiness about the casualty figures. Even so, a few videos have leaked out, purporting to show dead men, women, and children.

But it's hard to avoid another conclusion: The international community is simply growing desensitized to reports of massacres in Syria. At the time of the Houla massacre, the conflict had killed an estimated 10,000 Syrians -- 11 months later, the United Nations estimates the death toll at more than 70,000 people. In the face of such unrelenting violence, the world simply looks away.

 

JM LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Passport

What Chinese officials have learned about crisis management since the last earthquake

There's debate about the size of the earthquake that struck a rural region of China's southwestern Sichuan province on Saturday, killing at least 188 people and injuring more than 11,000 (Chinese seismology officials measured the quake at 7.0 while the U.S. Geological Survey pegged it at 6.6 -- a huge gap). But it is nevertheless a much smaller earthquake than the magnitude 7.9 one that hit nearby Wenchuan County in May 2008 and killed more than 87,000 people.

That earlier earthquake dominated Chinese conversations and the news cycle in the months leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and "changed the way many Chinese people talked about government accountability, charity, and citizenship," the New Yorker's Evan Osnos writes. The biggest controversy surrounding that earthquake was the disproportionately large number of children buried to death after flimsy government-constructed schools -- from which local official officials had siphoned off money -- collapsed.

It appears that no schools collapsed in Saturday's quake, but it's too early to know for sure. (It's also not clear whether schools in Lushan County, where the quake hit, withstood the disaster because they were better built or because the quake was much weaker than in 2008.)

The Wenchuan earthquake also helped propel dissident artist Ai Weiwei, who created a project to find the names of the dead schoolchildren, into the public eye. On Monday, Ai tweeted a link to a December 2012 YouTube video featuring the names of 4,851 children who died from the 2008 earthquake in white letters scrolling down a black screen. He managed to find roughly 80 percent of all the children who perished; the video is nearly an hour and a half long.  

Unlike the previous earthquake, this one took place in the age of Weibo -- the micro-blogging platforms similar to Twitter. Sina Weibo, the most influential, launched in August 2009 and now has 500 million users. An article published Monday in People's Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party spoke of the "maturity" with which Chinese netizens are approaching this earthquake as opposed to in 2008, which helps "stop the spread of rumors."[i.e., politically inconvenient information, sometimes false, sometimes true.]

Generally speaking, Chinese officials have a better sense now than they did five years ago that corrupt and embarrassing actions on their part could go viral on Weibo, which in turn could end their careers or lead to their imprisonment. Last year, for example, one official became the object of ridicule for flashing a fancy watch at the scene of a deadly bus crash. 

Ai, who has more than 212,000 followers on Twitter and has sent almost 90,000 tweets, has been relatively silent on this earthquake, focusing more on dissidents like Tan Zuoren, who investigated the deaths of schoolchildren after the 2008 earthquake. Tan was sentenced to five years in prison in February 2010 for "inciting subversion of state power" by criticizing the government's handling of the 1989 student protests and its bloody aftermath, but his supporters believe it was his work on the Sichuan earthquake that led to his arrest.

So far, officials have not taken much heat for their response to the most recent earthquake. A sign that the government has learned a thing or two since 2008? Check out this official in the white-button down looking properly somber, with hands clasped in front of him, during a meeting with Premier Li Keqiang in Lushan this week. There's no watch on his wrist, and one can't help but notice a very obvious watch-shaped tan line.

(h/t to Bill Bishop for the People's Daily commentary and watch photo)