Louisa Lim

Freedom to Report at Zipingpu Dam

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Louisa Lim: Quake Relief, Repair Efforts Ramp Up

Chengdu nurses

The Zipingpu Dam. Photo by Brendan Banaszak, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Photo by Brendan Banaszak, NPR

A row of green tents was perched at the far end of the road crossing the Zipingpu Dam Inside was the man responsible for the dam's safety, Mr. Hu. He was fielding calls on a red plastic telephone in this makeshift command center.

We'd read reports that cracks had appeared in the dam's wall following the earthquake, and apocalyptic warnings that if the dam were to collapse, water would surge downriver threatening Dujiangyan, a town of half a million people already reeling from the death and destruction meted out by this earthquake. Now having tracked down Mr. Hu, I was hoping for some official clarification about the extent of the damage.


But to be honest, having worked in China for five years, I was skeptical about my chances. In my experience, getting interviews with officials requires repeated faxes, numerous phone calls, days or even weeks of cajoling or sometimes downright begging.

When Mr. Hu asked to see my credentials, my heart sank. But then he picked up his red plastic phone, and asked for some statistics. And then he started answering my questions. No, he said, the dam was not dangerous.

Mr. Hu at dam

Mr. Hu and command center. Photo by Brendan Banaszak, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Photo by Brendan Banaszak, NPR

A team of specialists had already conducted an examination. Measures were being taken to lower the water level in the reservoir to reduce pressure on the dam wall. And Mr. Hu repeatedly emphasized that such cracks were allowed for in the dam's design. Sure, he wanted his message out ther, but, strange as it may seem, for me, the simple experience of asking a government official questions face-to-face represents a step forward.


Outside the green tent, I met Ma Jia, a journalist from China Water Resources News, who was scribbling in a tiny notebook. "We heard rumors about the dam, so I came down immediately to check out what was happening," he told me. "My colleagues have gone elsewhere to investigate the situation at other dams."

Walking back across the dam, I came across a local television crew, who had set up a satellite phone there and were trying to do a live broadcast. It's noticeable that the local media are tackling the same difficult questions as the international media; one comment piece in the Economic Observer asks why "elegant government buildings remain intact while dozens of schools crumbled like sand houses."


It seems the Chinese media are being given a freer reign to report on this natural disaster. In the past, the government response to unexpected emergencies has been an instinctive tightening of restrictions on the media. That has been accompanied by an official strategy of denial, cover-up, followed by belated admission.

This time round, difficulties in the relief operation are being acknowledged openly; today the government launched an unprecedented appeal for public donations of hammers, shovels and demolition tools.And the local radio stations here have been asking for medical supplies as well.


Maybe China's leaders have learned from their past mistakes, or maybe they've been watching Myanmar's disastrous response to its deadly cyclone, or maybe they realize a new strategy is needed in this interconnected world of texting and telecommunications.

Whatever the reason, local journalists seem to be taking advantage of the unexpected openness to push back the boundaries.

crushed car

Determined driver pushes on despite a van crushed in May 12th earthquake. Photo by Brendan Banaszak, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Photo by Brendan Banaszak, NPR



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Thanks everyone for coming to our blog and participating in an experience that we didn't want, didn't anticipate, but that has proven that this new tool has important ways to shape our lives.

Sent by Art Silverman, producer, All Things Considered | 8:23 PM | 5-15-2008

Compared with many other cases, the openness to media this time is indeed striking.

On the Chinese cyberspace, one of the biggest controversies is whether or not the Chinese government should allow foreign aid personels to join Chinese rescue force. Many Chinese called for the permission, and finally it happened, but some say it is too late.

Sent by jidian | 8:32 PM | 5-15-2008

Thank you for reporting on the status of the water dams. I sincrely hope that Mr. Hu is right and he answered the questions with honesty basing on the facts on the ground at the time and with his sound judgements.

I'm also glad to read that the new laws enacted on May 1st has given greater transparency to the press, at least the now more aggressive Chinese media. So far we have seen that and they are asking the officials hard questions.

China still needs to improve on many front but I believe it's progressing, as evidented from your interview. Thank you for pointing that out and give China the credits it due to have and deserves. Let's recall when was the last time a national leader to rush to a big disaster within hours like Mr. Wen, the Chinese premier? He got to the airport withing 90 mintues of the earthquake. Now, that's called efficency and caring, leaving all the Western political pundits and analysts' tea-leave readings out.

You and the ATC crew stay safe and sound and please continue to report on China with an opened mind. All best!

Sent by GEN. Flicker | 8:41 PM | 5-15-2008

The domestic media in china can push the boundaries, but shouldn't be too over. both government and domestic media are testing water, and they should be careful not to lose the current given chance.

Sent by jiajia h. | 8:58 PM | 5-15-2008

I just read on a Chinese BBS another article about your (NPR's) China programs (in Chinese). It has a lot of good words about you, which I believe you really deserve. I have just added it on my Chinese blog: http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_4a9c4a4f01009cn4.html (the brown font part). I am glad that I introduced you to Chinese netters before this author, although his introduction has more details.

Sent by jidian | 9:28 PM | 5-15-2008

Dear NPR team, it's been three days since the quake. I know there are lots of anger, sorrow,anxiety going around. I thank you for your stories for bring us to the scene. However, this story as a whole, has many aspects. You've talked about what has not been done, what needs to be done. How about a story about what has been done. Maybe a story on the volunteers, on the recuse crews, on the donations in unaffected areas? People need positive things out of negative. Thank you.

Sent by Wenyan Yuan | 9:29 PM | 5-15-2008

Today as All Things Considered was into its last hour of broadcast for us in CO and a list of the names of all of the NPR crew was read I couldn't help but feel proud to be a public radio member. I was glad to hear that our NPR friends were safe and I am amazed at their dedication. Please, you must tell us more about your interpreter Xiaoyu Xie and how he came to be your interpreter. He sounds like the ultimate in NPR listeners. Please do take care of yourselves both while in China and when you come home. Best wishes for our NPR family reporting from China.

Sent by Janet | 9:46 PM | 5-15-2008

Dear Louisa Lim, NPR/ATC:

The links in your article above are directing to the wrong sites. The URL link to "China Water Resources News" web site is actually going to the Nortel web site. And the "Chinese media" hyperlink is going to the Time.com China Blog.

At first I thought I misunderstand your article but then I read again and again. Is this a joke or a plain mistake?

Sent by GEN. Flicker | 10:18 PM | 5-15-2008

A charity auction is planned next week in Chengdu by some achieved photographers and authors. Not sure if this could be something you would be interested in reporting. More information here. http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_46e98efa010093a2.html

Sent by Ji (a Chengdu native) , Schaumburg, IL | 10:25 PM | 5-15-2008

Dear Mr. Siegel and NPR Crews,

Thank you so much for your reporting from Chengdu, Sichuan. This provided coverage from different perspectives. I truly appreciate your good work. Please take care.

Sent by Longxiang Yang | 10:50 PM | 5-15-2008

Thanks NPR for getting the news out in a very difficult situation.

GEN, I don't think the links were added manually. They might be "relevant" links according to certain computer content matching software. Please be more understanding.

Sent by Michael | 11:09 PM | 5-15-2008

Among the disaster and heart wrenching stories of agony and pain of the chinese people, I commend both Robert and Melissa for being there and sharing with us their experiences.Truly outstanding journalism.

Sent by Claudia Aguilar | 11:30 PM | 5-15-2008

Sorry, just realized the event I provided above might be in Beijing, instead of Chengdu. Sorry for the confusion.

Sent by Ji (a Chengdu native) , Schaumburg, IL | 11:35 PM | 5-15-2008

The Chinese TV in Shanghai confirmed the safety of the dam too. I am glad it is not making more troubles. We just had enough.

Sent by C. Liang | 1:08 AM | 5-16-2008

Dear Art Silverman,

The Chinese people are forever indebted to your professionalism and for help establishing a "human element" about a Chinese event - albeit a very tragic event.

We want to let you know that we whole-heartedly support you and that you must continue your work. As our world continues to be more interconnected, more and more people will flock to you for news and understanding.

We will be telling our friends and colleagues in China to pay attention to you and that they should look to you as a template for how news is done.

Warmest Regards,

the Chinese Century blog

Sent by www.thechinesecentury.org | 1:29 AM | 5-16-2008

Thank you for your honest report!

Sent by WEI | 3:43 AM | 5-16-2008

Yuan Wenting, a 20-year old first grade teacher in an elementary school in the town of Shigu in Shifang city, rescued many kids who were too terrified to move when the earthquake happened, lost her own life when she rushed into the school building one last time in the attempt to rescue more kids, the whole school building collapsed at that moment...

Here is a link that shows her forever youthful face:

Thanks NPR for your report on this tragic event, but please also try to report some stories of those who lost their own lives in this tragedy for saving others. They deserve our uttermost respect as human being.

Sent by yang | 7:03 AM | 5-16-2008

Thank you for your outstanding reports. Please do take care of yourselves.

Sent by lake austin | 10:21 AM | 5-16-2008

Dear NPR crew - Thank you so much for your truly excellent, professional and heartfelt reporting of this disaster. I sat in my office streaming NPR each day this week, awaiting updates. Melissa's coverage at the school is something I will never forget - and is one of the reasons I listen to NPR.

I was in Chengdu and surrounding towns in the fall of 2002 and can sadly attest to seeing buildings poorly constructed. I also saw the Three Gorges dam, and have been paying attention to coverage about the possible dam problems in the quake region. I enjoyed my trip to China and want to go back. I wish I could be there to help. Having been there as a tourist, and then listening to your reports, brings me back to 6 years ago.

I feel the suffering of the Chinese people today, in part due to your efforts to bring us the story. I am proud to be an NPR supporter. Please be careful. Safe travels.

Sent by Erika | 11:22 AM | 5-16-2008

Your reporting has brought me oh so close to the events in China... it's almost too much to bear. Thank you for such clear and heart felt reporting. Many, many friends of Xiaoyu (my piano coach) in Northampton were listening to the gracious thanks you gave him yesterday. You're learning what we already know... he is a remarkable person. Take good care of yourselves and Xiaoyu, and come home safe.

Sent by Jone Messmer | 12:58 PM | 5-16-2008

Thanks for the story. In the past, I have not been impressed by Louisa's report on China as they always have more ideological tint than from others at NPR (Connie Chung phenomena?). Since you are in China, I assume you are aware that a new law on open-governess and reporting just came into effect? Don't you think the new law has some impact on the new-found openness?

Also, as with any government, there are always fractions pulling in different directions. There have been reports that the propaganda chief had ordered 'positive reporting' in the beginning. But he was quickly overruled by the politburo. Hopefully the liberal faction will be able to keep its upper hand and the conservative faction can see the benefit of openness.

Sent by JJ | 1:28 PM | 5-16-2008

"On the Chinese cyberspace, one of the biggest controversies is whether or not the Chinese government should allow foreign aid personnels to join the Chinese rescue force. Many Chinese called for the permission, and finally it happened, but some say it is too late."

What are you going to do with them, with roads all blocked and 7 6.x Richter scale aftershocks? The Japanese team were stuck at 5km away from where they were assigned for almost two days. I didn't see they hiked into that town; yes they have to climb over mountains that still have landslides and mudslides.

In Taiwan's quake, so many professional foreign teams, only four were rescued...

Sent by ipfreak | 5:36 PM | 5-16-2008

Thank you for your integrity and human touch in your report. Reading your honest reports from Sichuan, I feel proud to be a NPR member. I wonder where is the rest of US media? Haven't figured out a way to spin it into their ideological mold?

Keep up your great work and come home safe.

Sent by Wenjing | 8:16 PM | 5-16-2008


Compared with many other cases, the openness to media this time is indeed striking.

On the Chinese cyberspace, one of the biggest controversies is whether or not the Chinese government should allow foreign aid personels to join Chinese rescue force. Many Chinese called for the permission, and finally it happened, but some say it is too late.

Sent by jidian | 8:32 PM ET | 05-15-2008

it's too late because the earthquake area is around huge mountains, all the road go there are completed broke and destroied. Even Chinese rescue troop can't go that far. We all know in the beginning 48 is very important, Let me ask you it's possible US rescue can go there in 48 hours? I guess you don't know. It's impossible for any country send people there in 48 hours. The local government is busy and focus on how get people out of there, they are not able to take care of internation team at this time!

Sent by Andy | 9:45 PM | 5-16-2008

My family spent a year in Chengdu and visited Dujiangyan: http://www.newsofthenorth.net/article.cfm?articleId=23926

Jeff, Eleanor and I are thinking everyday about the people of Sichuan.

Sent by Mary Kinnunen | 8:59 AM | 5-20-2008


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