Massive Story, No Reporters: It’s Just the News from Southern China.

In retrospect, the 2003 SARS crisis really did define both the abilities and limits of China’s resident foreign journalists in ways that – five years later, in the midst of another crisis – are still being tested. The abilities, in the way that a few brave individuals covered a dangerous story without being deterred by personal safety or heavy-handed government restrictions. And the limit, in that the foreign media failed to pick up on the disease until several months after it emerged and was recognized in Guangzhou (there were reports of a “bad flu” in Guangzhou starting in October and November of 2002; the foreign media started running with the story in January of 2003). And this limit was, to a very large extent, the result of the fact that foreign news organizations continue to run their south China coverage out of Hong Kong, and not out of Guangdong properly. Though the distance between them can be covered in under two hours, the cultural distances are so much greater. No reporter – foreign or otherwise – can expect to cover the subtleties of the Pearl River Delta without actually living in it (I’ve toyed with the idea), or spending extended period of time there. It’s amazing, actually, that more reporters and news organizations don’t base in Guangdong. After all, it is, as we are so often reminded, the Workshop of the World, headquarters to much of China’s export capacity (and thus, the world’s), and home to some 30 million + migrants (in addition to 80+ million locals). But that’s a subject for another post.

Anyway, this all comes to mind as I try to determine – from an Internet connection based outside of China – what is happening to the reported 800,000 migrant laborers stranded – for reasons having to do with the weather and inadequate transportation infrastructure – at the Guangzhou Railway Station. And, for that matter – how 100+ million in south China are reacting to power outages and food shortages caused by a weather-related disaster that – from my reading – only seems to be getting worse. No surprise, none of the major Western daily papers have reporters down there, and those papers covering the disaster are doing so from bureaus located north and east of the real catastrophe (for example, the Washington Post). Obviously, with transport links severed, few reporters are capable of getting down there, even if they wanted to go. At the same time, many – if not most – of China’s foreign journalists are now out of the country (including me), taking a brief break during the news lull that – typically – occurs during the Chinese New Year.

There are exceptions, of course. CNN’s John Courtney has filed a report from the Guangzhou train station, with images, that can be found here. But that’s about it for English-language reporting from down there – and that seems rather thin for a story that – in my opinion – is bigger than SARS, and will likely exert a far more profound effect on the function and long-term structure of the Chinese economy and, potentially, China’s political order (I’ll have more to say on those topics in the next day or so). Again, I’m not calling anybody out over this – heck, I’m not there, either – but it is interesting to note how a major story can be reduced to near nothing in the western media due to structural and staffing issues. And yes, I’m aware that the Chinese media in the south – especially Southern Metropolitan Daily – is exceeding its foreign counterparts in depth and scope of coverage. That is as it should be.

Finally, the Hong Kong Red Cross is accepting contributions to support relief operations in areas effected by the snowstorms. You can donate here.

[UPDATE: Reporters are beginning to trickle into the south (see comment #9, below). Better yet, Chinese bloggers are beginning to file their own reports from the interior provinces. The excellent Global Voices Online offers a selection, with English translations, here (via danwei).


  1. Insightful take on things, as usual. I didn’t realize so few foreign pubs actually had people in Guangdong proper – I’ve always been bothered by how disproportionately large Guangdong’s coverage is compared to China’s interior. I don’t even know what big stories there were missed, because they were completely missed (unless, of course, absolutely nothing of note has ever happened in China’s interior other than the Three Gorges Dam). But with large, countrywide issues – protests and environmental issues, to name too – examples from Guangdong have always made up a suspiciously high proportion. Given the restrictions on official media, and the underdeveloped nature of Chinese media in general in the interior, would we even know if there were also 500,000 people camped outside of the stations in Xiamen or Chongqing?

  2. “(A)nd that seems rather thin for a story that – in my opinion – is bigger than SARS.”

    From 1 November 2002 to 31 July 2003 SARS infected 8096 persons in 29 countries resulting in 774 deaths with fatalities and the threat of this pandemic originating in China remaining active to this day, by numbers less impressive than the millions affected by freak weather in central and southern China but in the balance surely SARS weighs in as a more important news item with consequences far removed from China’s borders.

    It is possible the snarled transportation system may lead to more serious outcomes for the Party than travellers stampeding for seats (imagine the usual scramble for seats x a factor of 1000’s), crowd control and temporarily higher prices of produce but, really, I doubt this season’s weather will become the proverbial straw on the camel’s back.

  3. Scott – I intend to blog about this subject in the next few days, but since you brought it up — the issue I have in mind is the mismanagement of China’s energy supplies. There are massive power outages out west, and down south, and they are a direct result of catastrophically bad policy decisions on coal and electricity pricing. The Party’s legitimacy has long been predicated upon its ability to manage the Chinese econom – In this case, they have failed and badly. Parts of northern Guangdong has been without power for a week. This will have consequences … and I will write about it before the end of the week.

  4. Scott, compare those numbers you quote for SARS with the stats for a real epidemic, something actually serious like HIV or malaria. With SARS put into its proper context, all of a sudden the winter storms really do look like the bigger story.

  5. And what is the “proper context” for SARS? An infected person (a doctor from China no less) brought the contagion across the border to Hong Kong and suddenly the news media understood people were dying from a heretofore unknown respiratory disease which cause, transmission, parameters and cure were unknown. Days later the infection had spread overseas stressing hospitals and staff that could only hope to halt the spread by strict quarantine, tourism to China plummeted affecting the economy (and the disease scaring hell out of most people) while international health officials played cat-and-mouse with the Chinese authorities trying to discover the extent of the epidemic and institute a protocol that would not again allow such an epidemic to go unreported for so long. SARS remains a threat and if it mutates into something more contagious or malignant there may occur that world-wide epidemic to the extent and with consequences similar to the 1918 flu of which health authorities have warned.

    And freak weather in central and southern China is more important? The consequences more profound? And SARS can be dismissed by the numbers as less invidious than HIV or malaria? We now how HIV and malaria is transmitted, we know the precautions and we have a cure for malaria, but for SARS?

    It seems you and I do not share the same sense of proportion but I doubt the historical record will show the sudden winter snows in central and southern China the week before Chinese New Year in 2008 to have more import than SARS.

  6. Yes, you´re right. Information about China is always so much about Beijing…

    A photographer and myself have been in front of the Guangzhou train station yesterday. It was really amazing to see all that people trying to get into the train, although I have to say that everything was more or less under control.

    We have uploaded some videos ( and pictures (

    I have also some information in Spanish on my blog.

  7. According to a live news report I watched on tv this very morning, Tuesday, February 5, in Shanghai the Guangzhou train station is empty of waiting passengers as trains running from about 8 o’clock yesterday evening until early this morning transported everyone out.

    It may not be fair nor analogous but I’ll say it anyway, the handling and movement of so many persons was done better, more efficiently and with more grace than my own country’s shameful response to Katrina.

  8. One thing is how they have managed the crisis, not bad for such a mess in my opinion. The other how authorities deal with the information which has been the expected for these cases and that you have expressed very clearly in your post

  9. Adam,

    Bravo on this post. As a former resident of Guangzhou, I couldn’t agree more with your opinions, which I have often echoed on my own blog.

    The Pearl River Delta region is not only an economic engine for China, but it’s GDP is larger than most other countries in the world – by itself. As it’s already culturally different from China (Lingnan Culture, Cantonese language, historical differences) I’m surprised there is not more of a presence there, not only from foreign media outlets but also by the Beijing government.

    The south is often sadly overlooked, and if it continues, it will be to the government’s own detriment.

    If you are considering living there, I highly recommend it. It doesn’t have the glitz or glamour of Shanghai, but the cost is cheaper and there is certainly lots happening there. Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Dongguan, and Macao are all only 2 hours apart from each other, with four international airports capable of transporting you nearly everywhere. I am perhaps biased, having lived there, but I truly feel it’s the most dynamic and exciting region in the country at the moment.


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