China’s “opportunity”: Objections and responses

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Wednesday’s story about the tragedy that is unfolding in China reported not only that more than 12,000 had been killed but also how it ‘has given China an opportunity for a dramatic image makeover. After months of relentless coverage of Tibetan clashes and human rights abuses, the earthquake shows a new China, one that is both compassionate and competent.’

A few readers thought the headline, ‘Amid the tragedy lies opportunity,’ and the article were insensitive.

One reader said he was appalled, in light of the enormity of the tragedy and the lives lost, that the story was on the front page; he thought that the article’s thesis signified as he put it, that ‘we in Los Angeles are thinking image.’

Foreign Editor Marjorie Miller and reporter Barbara Demick respond.


The editor who has overseen the China earthquake coverage says obviously it was not the intention to produce a story deemed insensitive. Miller went on to explain the thinking behind the story in an e-mail sent to a reader:

‘We viewed it as part of a package of many stories published over the last two days that describe the scope and horror of the tragedy and tell personal tales of suffering people. These stories will continue, as you’ll see in tomorrow’s paper.

‘Our intention with the story you mentioned was to show two things: First of all, that a country that was seen as a villain by much of the world just days ago suddenly was seen as a victim. Secondly--and perhaps more important--that a highly centralized, often authoritarian government used to controlling information is behaving differently.’

In response to those objecting to the headline and use of the word in the story, Miller wrote, ‘I can see that using the word ‘opportunity’ is off-putting at this time. It might have been better to wait a day or two to write this story, but it was striking in watching both the U.S. and Chinese coverage of the events.’ (The

Reporter Barbara Demick says that she received a number of e-mails similar in condemning the story, but she also received positive reaction, such as from one reader in China who called the story ‘very sharp.’ To one reader who expressed his concern, Demick responded:

‘Disasters show countries as they really are. They strip away the veneer. The Chinese are doing a good job handling the earthquake in terms of mobilizing, volunteering, cooperating and keeping their own people informed through a media that is if not free, much freer than before. The Chinese people I know here in Beijing are very proud of the way their country is respsonding to disaster and that’s key to their morale especially in the wake of the Olympic torch and Tibet debacles. It shows them and the world how much their country has changed since the 1976 earthquake which Mao Tse-tung covered up. We journalists are often accused of only writing bad news. So in this terrible tragedy, I think it’s right to point out the sliver of positive that the Chinese can take away from this experience. That’s why I wrote the story.’