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)


Al Qaeda will take your questions now

It's not every day that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the terror group's North Africa affiliate, explains itself to the press. But that's just what happened last week, when media spokesman Ahmed Abu Abdulelah answered questions posed to the organization's Twitter account.

In fact, I posed a question to AQIM that the organization saw fit to answer: What had al Qaeda learned from the experience of al Qaeda in Iraq? The Iraqi organization had alienated its erstwhile allies by launching indiscriminate attacks that killed Sunni and Shiite civilians alike -- I was trying to get at whether its North African counterpart was tailoring its approach with that cautionary tale in mind. Judging by the rudimentary state institutions al Qaeda set up in the Malian city of Timbuktu -- and that it was willing to do a Q&A with Western reporters -- it seemed it may have learned a thing or two.

But if AQIM sees al Qaeda in Iraq's behavior as anything but praiseworthy, it didn't let on. "What we learned from the experience of Al-Qaeda and the Mujahid groups in Iraq is that Allah Almighty is capable of anything on earth and in the sky, and it increased our certitude that the victory is from Allah alone," spokesman Abdulelah wrote.

The main purpose of the interview seemed to be to put pressure on France, which still has troops on the ground in Mali. Responding to a question about whether it had threatened to blow up the Eiffel Tower, AQIM declared, "We support and call all the Muslims to target France and its interests and subjects inside and outside France until it withdraws the last soldier from the land of the Muslims."

AQIM also struck a nationalistic note, framing its efforts as a struggle to let Muslim countries control their resources and choose their own forms of government. "Today France is saying to the world that it doesn't accept the establishment of an Islamic state that is 3000 km away from France, because it resembles a danger on it, and that the uranium of the Muslims in Nigera, and their gold in Bamako [Mali], and their oil in Algeria, is part of its national security," the spokesman wrote. "Do the French accept such a talk about their resources in the Alps or their farms in the Paris Basin?"

The second bogeyman for al Qaeda's North Africa branch, after France, is the Algerian government. In one revealing exchange, the AQIM spokesman describes his organization's strategy in the country: Popular support, he says "isn't a gift that comes down from the sky on the non-working," but requires "gentle dawah [teaching of Islam] and good role model, good treatment, and you will see wonders from it God willing."

Perhaps al Qaeda is adapting, after all.