China Quake: Shifting Gears When Disaster Strikes All Things Considered went to China in May to prepare a series of specials from the Sichuan province in China. They soon found themselves covering a very different story — a massive earthquake. Hosts Melissa Block and Robert Siegel, and producer Andrea Hsu talk about their experiences.
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China Quake: Shifting Gears When Disaster Strikes

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan. We're broadcasting today from the Knight Studio at the Newseum...

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: Washington, D.C.'s newest museum devoted to journalism and the news business. After months of preparation Melissa Block, Robert Siegel and a team from All Things Considered were in Chengdu in May to prepare a weeklong series of specials from Sichuan Province in southwest China, broadcasts on economics and culture, on politics and real estate, from a part of China that many Americans know only as a style of spicy Chinese cooking.

They were there, in position, when a devastating earthquake changed everything. The most recent estimate of the number killed is 69,000, five million more left homeless. For many days, much of the world learned of the disaster through the sounds and words and pictures the ATC team filed for the radio and for our website. Melissa and Robert are here with us at the Newseum. Producer Andrea Hsu joins us from the studios of KTYD in Santa Barbara, California.

If you'd like to talk with them about the people they met and what they saw, about how the Chinese government and its army reacted, both to the disaster and to scrutiny, and about the economic boom they went to China to cover, give us a call. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Melissa Block, Robert Siegel, Andrea Hsu, thank you so much for coming in today and giving us the chance to talk to you.

ROBERT SIEGEL: Thank you.

MELISSA BLOCK: You're welcome.

ANDREA HSU: Thank you.

CONAN: And tell us, why did you choose Sichuan Province to do the weeklong special, Robert?

SIEGEL: Well, Andrea and our executive producer, Chris Turpin, wanted to choose someplace in China where we could convey a sense of life in the course of a week of stories, and we felt that people have heard a lot of reporting from Beijing. They've heard a lot of reporting from Shanghai. So we wanted to go - in effect, we wanted to go someplace that you didn't know about, and the idea that the place we went to turned out to be exceptionally newsworthy was utterly counterintuitive, given what our judgment had been.

CONAN: And Andrea, I guess you were the first one to go there, to try to prepare the way?

HSU: Right, actually, Chris Turpin and I went in February on a scouting trip, and we just spent about two days there, meeting people and actually looking at hotels and, you know, logistical things like that, and then I went back in the middle of March and just started setting up interviews, making contacts on the ground. And Melissa came in April for two weeks, for a reporting trip.

CONAN: And one of the things I wanted to get at was the difference between your ability to work in Sichuan Province then, back earlier, before the earthquake happened, and what happened subsequently. Andrea, what was the difference?

HSU: Right. When I arrived on March 19th, it was about five days after the riots in Tibet, and I had a lot of problems setting up interviews, and these are not interviews that had to do with Tibet. These were interviews about basketball, about sports schools, about dogs. You know, Robert wanted to do a story about the increase of dogs in Chengdu as pets. And the answer I kept getting was, this is too sensitive a time. You're foreign media. We don't really feel comfortable doing these interviews.

And then right after the earthquake, it was incredible how much access we had, how many people were willing to talk to us. I mean, Robert wanted to talk to a psychiatrist, and we tried for a couple of months to get this interview, and you know, were told to sent letters of applications to various levels of bureaucracy, only to be told, basically, you can't do this interview. And then right after the earthquake, Louisa Lim, our reporter in Shanghai, was able to do a whole story about mental health. So the change was really, really incredible.

CONAN: Melissa, you must've seen that firsthand.

BLOCK: Yeah. I mean, you know, we had been stymied on all sorts of things, and with the earthquake, I mean, whether it was that they had a story that they wanted told, which was, at that point, a fairly positive story for the government, in terms of their response, or that they were too busy with other things, and access was loosened, whichever, you know, things became much, much easier.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on this conversation. It's your opportunity to talk with the - some of the people who were in Sichuan Province when the earthquake struck, and I guess, it's - this is the moment I should say, this is a team effort. We're talking with three of the people whose voices you heard. There were any number of other people on that trip whose voices you did not get a chance to hear, other producers, other technicians, in various levels of, well, our own bureaucracy were over there, too.

HSU: And interpreters as well.

CONAN: And interpreters as well.

SIEGEL: Yes, the interpreters, who were very important.

CONAN: I was going to ask Andrea Hsu about that. By the way, if you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And Andrea, you went in with the advantage of being able to speak the language.

HSU: I speak Mandarin, which is, you know, obviously very helpful, and I could - people could basically understand me with no problem, but I had a hard time understanding a lot of people, especially when I first got to Chengdu, because everybody speaks Sichuan dialect, and it's not that easy for - I would say it's actually not that hard for native speakers of Chinese to understand. But for somebody like me who learned Chinese as an adult, I had a hard time understanding people there.

And so - but it wasn't just said matter of understanding, it was actually communicating with people, because people on the ground felt much more comfortable with people who spoke their dialect. So we hired, locally hired, a few people to help us, and actually we had a listener from Massachusetts, Xiaoyu Xie, who came back - he's originally from Chengdu and he came back specifically to help us early in the summer, and - or late in the spring. And they were just instrumental, because they could just - they could communicate and also be sort of ambassadors for our team.

CONAN: Well, let's see if we can get a listener in on the conversation. Let's start with Steve. Steve's with us from Wichita in Kansas.

STEVE (Caller): Yes, it is. Hi, I just wanted to thank you for the coverage that you did, and specifically the story, the couple looking for their missing kid and parents, and the - where they had to go out and get their own help and their own equipment and what not, to find their kid. That was truly a driveway moment for me. Not my driveway, I had to pull over in somebody else's driveway because I couldn't - I couldn't keep my eye on the road anymore. Thank you very much for that story.

CONAN: Steve, the story he mentioned is one of the stories we pulled some tape from, some of the stories you did, and this one in fact is...

SIEGEL: It's Melissa's story.

CONAN: Melissa's story, one of - a very tough story about following throughout the day a young couple looking to find not just their son but their parents as well. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of NPR's All Things Considered, May 14, 2008)

(Soundbite of people speaking Chinese)

(Soundbite of crying)

BLOCK: A worker just came out and said they had found the bodies of a child and two old people, and Mrs. Fu asked, was he a boy of about two? And the worker nodded, yes.

(Soundbite of crying)

BLOCK: So they now know that their family has been found and they're all dead.

(Soundbite of crying)

BLOCK: Mrs. Fu just cried out her son's name, and she said, Mama is here.

(Soundbite of crying)

Ms. FU GUANYU: (Chinese spoken)

CONAN: And Melissa, I think that raises a couple of tough points, one of which is how much do you intrude on other people's grief?

BLOCK: Yeah, it's something that, you know, I think Andrea and I both wrestled with over the course of the day. You were hearing the tail end of a very long nine hours. We had found Fu Guanyu and Wang Wei as they were in the middle of the city of Dujiangyan. They were clinging to the side of an excavator that was rumbling through the city painfully slowly, and it became clear that they were leading it toward their house.

They were in agony. It was, I think, two days after the earthquake, and they had finally gotten heavy equipment to come and piece through the rubble. So we spent the day with them, and this is the case where our interpreter, Phillip He, was invaluable in talking to them, and assuring them. There's a lot of suspicion in Western media, but he was, as Andrea said, an ambassador for us in telling them that we were people who could be trusted to tell their story.

They certainly had many, many opportunities to tell us to leave. There were local officials there who would've been only too happy to escort us away. And this couple, to their credit, and to their immense testament to their bravery, I think, had us stay. And by the end of the day, it became sort of painfully clear over the course of the day that there would be no good news there, as they excavated deeper and deeper into this building that was completely destroyed.

What Fu Guanyu was saying at the end there, if - Andrea will correct me if I'm mistranslating it, but my memory is that she called out to the workers, did you cry out my son's name? Maybe he had just fainted. Which was, for me, just a moment of, I think - you know, it was a story that people obviously have a visceral reaction to. I do, because I listen to it now.

It taps into every - goes right into the vein of all the emotions that you might feel. But we did wrestle a lot with, how much of this should be on the air? I sent back a 12-minute piece and told our editors, if it's over the top, if it's too much, cut it. I don't want to turn people off. It's either compelling or it's completely wrong, and you guys need to decide, because I can't.

CONAN: Make that decision back in Washington. And Robert, there are moments, well, we can hear catches in your voice. You're a notably unsentimental broadcaster.

SIEGEL: Yeah, I was just struck, in listening to the sound from Melissa's piece, how there are some moments of speech in a language that you don't understand at all that you barely have to understand. That is, we know what those people are expressing at that moment, and it's - to me, it's a horrible moment in their lives. But it just sort of transcends translation. It's the sound of people grieving. It's the sound of people getting the worst news of their lives.

CONAN: And Andrea, as the producer, obviously, you're hoping, I think, that when you go into that situation, of course, that the son will be pulled out alive, and that the grandparents will be pulled out alive. There must have been a moment, though, when you realized that this was not going to happen.

HSU: To be honest, when we saw the building, we actually were a little bit confused about which building they were talking about, that they, you know, they believed the parents and the child were in. But when I saw that building, I thought, you know, I don't think there's any way that they're alive. Possibly the baby, because the baby was so small, and that's what people kept hoping over the course of the day, that you know, the baby doesn't need that much space. But as Melissa said, you know, as the day wore on, we just - I think, even the parents really had lost hope by the end.

CONAN: There's also the question of - this is a disaster on a scale that I don't think any of us have very much experience with. Nevertheless, by telling these individual stories, you begin to convey some degree of what is going on, on a mass scale. And Robert, the scale of this, I think, even now, is hard for us to comprehend.

SIEGEL: Yes. When you drove, well, to Dujiangyan, this town north of the city of Chengdu, or beyond it, or up through the city of Mianyang, you - I brought an American perspective. And I - this was my first trip to China, so it was all new to me. And I brought an American perspective. I assumed that towns would be a few miles apart, and really little specks on the map would be home to a few hundred people.

And instead, it's just the reality of being in China. The villages are a few kilometers, if that, apart, and the places where you'd expect to find a few hundred people in that spot, a couple of thousand people live there. And it happened at 2:30 in the afternoon. That's during the Chinese school day, when every kid in China is back from a long lunch break, back in school. And so, if you were inside of a school building that was either right on a fault or poorly constructed, that building would collapse and there'd be kids in it.

CONAN: OK, stay with us, if you would. Robert Siegel, Melissa Block and Andrea Hsu of All Things Considered, back from China. We're in the Knight Studio in the Newseum. If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan, broadcasting today from the Knight Studio inside the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: NPR's All Things Considered is with us here. That's Melissa Block and Robert Siegel along with producer Andrea Hsu. And we're talking about their remarkable, emotional trip to China that coincided with the disastrous earthquake there. If you'd like to ask them questions about what it was like to cover it, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And you can read what other listeners have to say on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Three days after the earthquake hit, people were still struggling to get basic necessities.

(Soundbite of NPR's All Things Considered, May 15, 2008)

(Soundbite of running water)

SIEGEL: The place is called Gong Xing, and Gong Xing has run out of water. This morning, a fire truck was parked along the main road, dispensing water from a hose. Residents of the town lined up to fill plastic jugs and basins. When they see our microphones, they start to tell us, we need water, we need rice, we need medicine, we need tents. They say the government came through and searched for survivors in the remains of collapsed buildings, of which there are many. They say this morning, the village government distributed some supplies, but not enough, one bottle of water per person. They say they're hungry, and they have no food.

And the condition of your homes?

(Soundbite of people talking)

Unidentified Woman: Most of them, 90 percent or so, collapsed. The rest are in danger, dangerous structures.

(Soundbite of people talking)

Ms. LUO QI (Resident, Gong Xing, China): We really need help.

SIEGEL: We really need help. That's from Luo Qi, an 18-year-old student, one of two we met who speaks some English. Twenty-one-year-old Jen says many people in Gong Xing were injured in the quake, or became ill after it.

CONAN: And Robert, listening to that tape, it sounds like it wasn't that hard to get people to be critical of their government.

SIEGEL: They were spontaneously critical of the government, and then the local town party leadership stepped in and was spontaneously critical of the people who were being critical, and urged them not to say these things to Western journalists. This was a kind of encounter that, I think, we experienced it...

CONAN: Over and over?

SIEGEL: Over and over again, and yet the people insisted. They wanted to tell us what was going on.

CONAN: Later on, you run into protests of parents who were saying that the schools were constructed with shoddy materials. There was some corruption involved. And the treatment of these parents has been one of the stories after the earthquake, Melissa.

BLOCK: It's evolved in really interesting ways. I had gone, the night of the earthquake, to a middle school that had collapsed, and you know, from the very beginning, we started hearing criticism of local officials. People there would say, you know, the central government is doing a good job, but it's local officials who are corrupt. They're on the take.

We went back a couple of days after the earthquake. A man came up to me with a little piece of concrete from the building and snapped it in two in his hands, and I took it and it crumbled immediately, saying, you know, they cut corners, they were pocketing part of the - you know, maybe there were kickbacks and the school was built badly. Somebody told us that it had been designed to be two stories and then they added two stories on top. I mean, this was repeated over and over.

And what you've seen since we've left is a really interesting story of people organizing in protest, in opposition. They've said they're going to sue the government. And then Rob Gifford, our Beijing correspondent, who's been in Chengdu, reported last week that parents were dragged away from the steps of the courthouse. They were hauled off. Reporters were detained. I mean, it's - you get the sense that the government was allowing a certain level of protest, but they're only going to go so far, and that, you know, they are beginning to crack down in very strong ways.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Eric, Eric with us from Orem in Utah.

ERIC (Caller): That's right. Hello.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

ERIC: OK. And first to the Chinese speakers I want to say da jia hao. For the - my question was, I wanted to know what the feel and the response of the people were in the Sichuan Province to the government's presence after the earthquake and such. My own personal experience in Beijing was that there's a great feeling of repression, a lot of times, with the level of control that the government imposes upon its people. And I just wanted to get the thoughts and opinions of the people who were there.

CONAN: Andrea Hsu, why don't we start with you?

HSU: Well, I think it was a couple days after most of our team left, I was up in a tent city, and people actually seemed pretty grateful, because the government had come in and set up the tents. I mean, I think this tent city had about 1500 people. They had set up hot water heaters. They had built a latrine. They actually brought in these big woks so that people could cook. And so I think, at least those people, I think, seemed pretty grateful.

At another place up in the mountains, there were, I think, soldiers from Shandong Province, and they also seemed grateful, because they were coming around and helping them set up tents and things like that. So I didn't - again, sort of what Melissa said, I heard a lot of complaints about local government, local officials, but pretty much, you know, a lot of support for the central government.

CONAN: Robert?

SIEGEL: Well, first, I think, as Andrea will attest, we heard that same analysis of things in a totally different context even before the earthquake, which is, national policy is good, local implementation is bad and corrupt. The leaders, the national leaders of China, Hu and Wen, both made a couple of visits to the area, which were depicted on Chinese media in extraordinary, I thought in what we would find to be incredibly lengthy detail. It was more like a C-SPAN presentation...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Of a presidential visit than a news report. And clearly, the government felt that it was doing better by going to Sichuan, showing up, going to the scenes of rescue efforts, because, as Andrea knows better than all of us, there's a history, a terrible history, 30 years - 32 years ago, of not doing anything in a huge earthquake. And then a more recent history of them getting out during the snow crisis of the winter and publicly apologizing for getting things wrong. And the Chinese leadership seems to be at least attempting to develop what appears to be a normal relationship with the public over these things.

CONAN: Eric, thanks very much for the phone call.

ERIC: Thank you.

CONAN: And I want to play another piece of tape from your reporting, and this was a week after the earthquake, when thousands gathered to mourn as a nation.

(Soundbite of NPR's All Things Considered, May 19, 2008)

BLOCK: When the sirens stopped, an entirely different cacophony began. First, wails of grief.

(Soundbite of crying)

BLOCK: Then chants, stand up, be strong.

(Soundbite of chanting in Mandarin)

BLOCK: These three minutes of silence have turned into many, many minutes of raucous cheers and chanting.

(Soundbite of chanting in Mandarin)

SIEGEL: It's interesting. It's not - it's certainly not a celebration. It's not a protest.

BLOCK: But it's a rally, a patriotic rally.

SIEGEL: It's a rally - a statement of comic purpose and obviously great sorrow, and so many of the people you and I are looking at right now, Melissa, are weeping as they're chanting.

BLOCK: And now the chant has turned into go, China, go, China, go.

(Soundbite of chanting in Chinese)

CONAN: And there would have been a time, Melissa, I don't think anybody would have had any questions that that had been staged. This time, it didn't look that way. It didn't sound that way.

BLOCK: It was a remarkable thing to witness. I can't imagine anything happening like that here. And you know, you would travel around after the earthquake, we were out maybe 10 days later, and the banner factories had gone into overdrive. Everywhere you went, there were patriotic banners with all sorts of different slogans.

Andrea can help me in remembering what some of them were, but all about the uniting the people, and we are standing strong, and China is coming together. You know, it became this catalyst for a real sort of nationalist fervor. And I think the question about the government response really plays into this. I mean, the Chinese people seem very intent on unifying around this notion that something terrible has happened but we are strong and we will pull through.

CONAN: Andrea, that goes to the whole story of Chinese nationalism that has been so important in that country in the past several years.

HSU: That's right. And actually, before the earthquake, there had been - you know, the Chinese people, especially young people, had rallied around this Tibet issue. And I'd been to, you know, a couple of - I think there was a protest against Carrefour, and it was sort of the same, you know, people singing the national anthem and waving the flag. And so it was just a couple of weeks later, after the earthquake, I just felt that all of that energy had been put towards, you know, coming together to face this terrible disaster.

CONAN: Robert?

SIEGEL: We did hear, though, that although this was to be a nationwide observance, and the three minutes of silence, I gather, was, but nothing similar - do I have this right, Andrea? - nothing similar erupted in Beijing or Shanghai. This was a Sichuan thing. This was in Chengdu.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a question from the audience here at the Newseum.

JOSHUA (Audience Member): I'm Joshua from Washington, D.C., and does any of you know how many children from the schools that crashed were killed?

BLOCK: You know, I just saw a number on this today, and I'm sure it's really hard to quantify. It's in the thousands. There was some misreporting earlier on, when people said that there were 7,000 schools that were destroyed. I think it was 7,000 classrooms. But the stunning and tragic thing was that sort of in every city that was badly hit, you heard stories about not just one school, but often it was multiple schools. It was the elementary school, the middle school. My memory is that it was something on the order of 8,000 children, all in all, although that may be low. It was, you know, obviously, many, many thousand too many.

CONAN: Thank you for the question. Let's see if we can get a caller in. This is Arthur, Arthur with us from Kansas City in Missouri.

ARTHUR (Caller): Good afternoon, all. This is a great topic. First of all, I want to say thank goodness none of you were hurt or injured or, God forbid, killed when you were there. I guess my question is, what was your reaction when you realized you were kind of - it's terrible to put it this way, but in the right place at the right time, all of a sudden, to cover what was going to be one of the biggest stories, certainly of this year?

BLOCK: I think that realization dawned, maybe, way too slowly. I mean, I think...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: The experience was so surreal for me, I'm not sure about for Robert, but I mean, you heard that in the tape at the beginning of the show, that, you know, it was hard to fathom exactly what was going on. When you looked around Chengdu, which is a city of millions of people, probably five million in Chengdu itself, and realize that buildings were not collapsed, and you thought, well, it was 7.8? How is that possible? How bad is it out there?

And it wasn't until you sort of got out into the other areas around Sichuan and started seeing the extent of the devastation that it started filtering in. I don't know that it really dawned on us all that quickly that we were pretty much the only Western reporters there, until we realized that we were also reporting for CNN and NBC and PBS.

SIEGEL: We may have been the only non-Chengdu reporters there. It just isn't a posting that a lot of media from any place other than Sichuan would be. I'm with Melissa on this. It was - I found it pretty slow, and I wanted to know, when I got out of the hotel where I'd experienced the quake on an unfortunately high story, where was it? Where was the epicenter? And when they said it was - when we learned it was about 90 kilometers away...

BLOCK: About 50 miles away, right?

SIEGEL: Fifty miles away, I figured, if that's what we felt, if what we felt was 50 miles away from the epicenter, if there are a lot of people living up near the epicenter, this is a very big earthquake.

CONAN: Robert, I was told you slept through the earthquake.

SIEGEL: No, no, no. I...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: No, no, you have it backwards, Neal. No, I was sitting at my desk in the hotel room when I thought a huge gust of wind hit the room.

CONAN: Oh, I see.

SIEGEL: And ran down 27 flights. That inoculated me against later aftershocks, which I was able to sleep through very easily. They were aftershocks which others found very distressing. But to me, it was nothing after that.

CONAN: OK. Thanks very much for the call, Arthur.

ARTHUR: Thanks, guys.

CONAN: Here's an email, Connie in Boise. I listened to every minute of Melissa Block's and Robert Siegel's reports from Sichuan. Their reporting was beautiful. It was sensitive without being maudlin. I will never forget the things I heard. Thank you both for letting your hearts show through.

And Robert, I wanted to get back to that. Was that something you discussed with the editors? Melissa said that she sent that tape back that was so powerful and said, you guys decide back in Washington, I can't judge from here.

SIEGEL: Um, I - no, I don't remember having an actual discussion about that. I wanted to try to keep it, you know, as straight and solid as I possibly could. There were a couple of moments just in relating things I could - you know, I was just terribly saddened in talking about them, and I guess that came through. And I had no great desire to retake it and sound authoritative and unaffected. But we spent several days talking with people who had just lost the person or people dearest to them in their lives, and in horrible, instant, you know, unforeseen circumstances. So it was a very sad experience.

And while, I did think it was important to report on relief and the volunteerism that began in response to the quake, at its core, this was a story about tens of thousands of people dying. And in a way I'm - I guess, as a reporter, I would, on one hand like to be there for the discovery of the person who's been buried for four days under the rubble. It's a miraculous story whenever it happens. But in a way, it's not the true story of what happens in an earthquake. It's the odd, miraculous exception. And the real story is a terrible, terrible volume of grief.

BLOCK: I have to say, Neal, if I can just add one thing, that I think we took our cues, to some extent, from the Chinese people.

SIEGEL: Yeah.

BLOCK: I mean, The couple whom you heard from before, at their moment of profound grief, within minutes, had composed themselves and were going off to find if there was a crematorium who could take care of the bodies of three of their family members. They had things to do, and they were doing them with unspeakable amounts of calm. I mean, it was boggling to the mind how quickly people composed themselves and got on with the things they had to do.

CONAN: Melissa Block and Robert Siegel from All Things Considered. Also with us, Andrea Hsu, one of their producers who was with them in China. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's get Latisha on the line, Latisha with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

LATISHA (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

SIEGEL: Hi.

LATISHA: I wanted to speak (unintelligible) to the piece of tape you played awhile ago from Gong Xing. Robert Siegel was reporting from there about the people who had no water, had no food, had no medicine, and a little later in that same report, he spoke to a pig farmer.

SIEGEL: Yes.

LATISHA: Who was asking for pig feed to be added to the list of things they needed, and he was upset about the number of pigs he had lost. And my first reaction to that was despair and disgust and just - I was completely hopeless with the human race, that in the face of such a crisis, in the face of his countrymen, his neighbors, dying of hunger and thirst, this man was worried about his livelihood, when others were worried about their lives.

He was worried about feeding his pigs when perhaps his pigs could have fed these people. And I was very upset. And later on, this made it even more interesting, I actually heard Melissa Block and Robert Siegel speaking about their experience reporting from China. Robert Siegel, you seemed to speak with some affection for this pig farmer, and it made me sort of second-guess my own reaction and wonder if there was more to the story that I had missed.

CONAN: Robert?

SIEGEL: Well, first off, I didn't share your reaction, your initial reactions, but I'll come back to that. I went back around three days later to the same farm, the same - it's a little collective in a village outside of Gong Xing. And we actually went, we brought some water. And we met the same people and saw them. And Mr. Mao, the same farmer, when we brought him the water in a really - his first reaction was I think there must be people more needy than us whom you could give this to. The government did come and he was actually quite humble.

His livelihood, and the livelihood of his family, and other people from what had been the collective there, was in agriculture, and I was stunned to see the farmers going on about their work, I guess it's thrashing canola and rice, which they sweep onto the street for cars to ride over. And in his case, he raised pigs, and this was his life, and others depended on him. So I think he was - it wasn't his first concern. It was the addendum that he added, and by that time about three or four days after the quake, he was - I don't think he was being selfish. I think he was hoping that he could support his family.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Latisha.

LATISHA: Thank you. And thank you both for all your reporting there.

SIEGEL: Thanks, Latisha.

BLOCK: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Andrea Hsu, a producer, and with hosts, Melissa Block and Robert Siegel, of All Things Considered about their experiences in China, before, during and after the terrible earthquake there. 800-989-8255. If you'd like to join the conversation, email us, talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Today we're here with NPR's All Things Considered team, three of them, anyway. They had a remarkable experience reporting on the massive earthquake in China. If you'd like to talk with them about the people them met, what they saw, and about how the Chinese government and army reacted both to the disaster and to scrutiny, and about the economic boom they went there to cover, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And again, you can read what other listeners had to say on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

And you were there to report on many aspects of Chinese life, some of them before the earthquake. And here, Robert, you took a look at China's one-child policy.

(Soundbite of NPR's All Things Considered, May 22, 2008)

SIEGEL: How many of you are only children? One, two, three, Carrie, only child?

Ms. CARRIE WANG (Teacher, China): I'm the only child in my family.

SIEGEL: Blaire?

Mr. BLAIRE LEE (College Student, China): Only child.

SIEGEL: Only child. Sophie?

Ms. SOPHIE TONG (College Student, China): Only child.

SIEGEL: Only child. Jeremy?

Mr. JEREMY CHAN (Teacher, China): I'm the only child.

Mr. VI JONG (Martial Arts Instructor, China): Only child.

SIEGEL: Vi? Only child?

Mr. RAINBOW JU (NGO Worker, China): Only one.

SIEGEL: Rainbow, only child. OK.

Ms. CHLOE LEE (Graduate Student, China): I have a younger brother.

SIEGEL: Chloe, you have a younger brother.

Ms. LEE: Yes.

SIEGEL: And this has to do with the fact that you're from a minority nationality?

Ms. LEE: Yes.

SIEGEL: The rest of you have grown up without having a sibling. A couple of you have a half-sister or a stepsister. Do you think it changes the way you lived, that so many Chinese of your generation are only children? Vi, you think it has?

Mr. JONG: Definite wished we had when we were young. I don't think we have any understanding why this policy there is. But just like, why can't I have a brother or sister?

SIEGEL: Jeremy, same thing?

Mr. CHAN: Very lonely. The reason that I'm teaching is because I want to compensate the childhood that I didn't have.

CONAN: Compensate for the childhood I didn't have, not being raised with brothers and sisters.

SIEGEL: In China, for the past 20 years, if you're not - well, if you're in the city, for sure, and if you're not a member of a minority group, you're limited - with a couple of other exceptions, you're limited otherwise to one child. So a generation, certainly of city kids, in the country it's a little different, but among city kids, an entire cohort has come of age, of only children, and - which happens in many rich countries.

This is a country that isn't quite rich yet, but you have these kids who are accustomed to a system in which you take care of your parents when they're elderly, and the Chinese family is now an inverted pyramid of a very small number of young people, and they're outnumbered by their elders. And there's a lot of pressure, both because you're the only kid, and you should succeed because all of our hopes are pinned to you.

And also because you have to take care of your parents. You have to take care of us when we're old. So, it's an interesting generation. Those parents probably knew the terrible chaos of the cultural revolution, or even worse before it, and they enjoy the current stability, and they're taking part in a huge moment of economic growth. But these kids have a lot of pressure on them.

CONAN: And Andrea Hsu, that put, well, the awful situation parents with one child who had to then bury that child in the earthquake.

HSU: Yes, in that first night when Melissa and I were at that school outside Dujiangyan, that was the thought, I think Melissa first raised it, that a lot of these children would have been only children. And I think it was about a week after the earthquake, there were reports that China was relaxing the one-child policy for those who lost a child in this disaster. In fact, it wasn't. That was the policy. It was, I think, misrepresented in the report. But that has always been the policy, that if a child died they could have a second child.

CONAN: A replacement.

HSU: Mm-hm. Well, maybe not a replacement, but another child, right.

CONAN: The implications of that one-child policy, though, Robert, they're fascinating. It's just not nearly how one grows up, but how one is treated by one's parents when one grows up. An entire nation of - I think I've read them described as little emperors.

SIEGEL: Yes. There's evidently been a lot of Chinese commentary on this phenomenon, that a lot of kids are doted on by four grandparents and - you know, or a heavy ratio. And they are people who, again, in their youth, they are people who had large families just a generation ago, and now just one kid. So yes there is a lot of commenting on perhaps the overindulged only child, but only the highly-pressurized individual. Whatever it is, I just found it a very interesting question and wanted to talk to a number of young people about what they thought. I went to a music school where these little girls, adorable kids, play the - this guzheng, I think it is. It's this old - it's like a very - a zither on steroids, I would say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: It's a great instrument. And I asked a head of the school, of 300 kids, you know, how many are only children? He said, 300. You know, 300 kids...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: So, it's a very common experience in Chinese cities now to meet a generation of kids who have never had the - now there are no middle children, there are no - and there are no elder children who have been raising a little one, or helping raise a little one. It's a very interesting thing.

CONAN: Let's get another...

HSU: If I can add something...

CONAN: Go ahead.

SIEGEL: Andrea...

HSU: Sorry. Robert, I was just going to mention Leilei (ph), one of the - this young woman that Robert interviewed who is an only child and her husband is an only child, and actually the rules state that if you are both only children, you can have two. And they are planning on having two. They are having one this fall, and other young people I met said the same thing.

SIEGEL: Yeah, we should just explain, the reason for this was...

CONAN: Overpopulation.

SIEGEL: That the population is up to 1.3 billion and change. And they had - what they'd been shooting for 1.2 billion, I think, in the 2000 - they didn't quite make it.

CONAN: A hundred million here, a hundred million there.

SIEGEL: Yeah, it's a big country.

CONAN: Yeah, let's get a question from the microphone here at the Newseum.

Unidentified Audience Member: Hi, Melissa, you mentioned earlier that interview access was broadened during the course of this story, and afterwards, an NPR reporter, I don't know if it was Robert or if it was Rob, followed up with a story about the opening up of the Chinese media. And I was just wondering, what did Chinese reporters that you talked to have to say about this?

BLOCK: You know, I have to say, I didn't talk to a Chinese reporters when I was there. I know from talking to our correspondent, Anthony Kuhn, who has been in China for many, many years, that he was really taken by how media coverage had expanded during the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, that there seemed to be a real blossoming, that, you know, reporters, were places they hadn't been. They were reporting in a more open way.

However, there are certainly stories the Chinese media have not been able to pursue, the shoddy construction of school being one, I think. We're hearing a lot about it in the West. I'm not sure you'll be hearing about it in China. I did see some coverage in a Chinese magazine. A business magazine has been tracking that. But I think if I were able to read Chinese and were looking at Chinese newspapers right now, I would probably be pretty struck at how different the coverage has been.

CONAN: Let's get Clayton on the line - and thanks for the question, by the way - Clayton is with us from Fort Dodge in Iowa.

CLAYTON (Caller): Oh, hi, Neal. Thank you. Yeah, I just wanted to revisit the national day of mourning. I was in Guangzhou one week to the day after the earthquake, and I was struck by the three minutes of what I thought was going to be somberness and silence, when, as your reporters indicating, an out ringing of cars and horns and loud, loud sounds.

And I guess my thought on it was that this was, in fact, a real representation of their nationalized feelings. And I just wanted to mention at Guangzhou, as a city, at least in my experience, really did react in a really positive and nationalistic way, and I was, as a participant there, with my head down, really looking around and trying to take it all in, because culturally it was just a different reaction. And I just wanted to pass that information on.

CONAN: All right. OK, thanks very much. Appreciate that.

CLAYTON: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Wendy. The Chinese are not always the most selfless people in their day-to-day lives. It seems that many of the towns that were affected have now formed a sense of camaraderie to survive in their tents and get the necessities. Did you get a sense this was a permanent change for them and their attitude to each other? Or a temporary change of heart? Also, what kind of effect did it seem to have on the rest of China that wasn't physically affected by the earthquake?

And, well, why don't we take that in parts? Andrea Hsu, I'm wondering if you wanted to weigh in on that.

HSU: Well, the first thing I was going to say is that we - everywhere we went, we just experienced such generosity on the part of these people who had lost everything. People asking us, had we eaten? Had we - did we have water? And I do think that this disaster, it - and I think we talked about this on the air - sparked this whole wave of volunteerism and people wanting to come out and help. And I think it may have to do with where China is economically, that people have the means to go out and help others. But I know that, Melissa and Robert, you were - you both also talked about this, all this.

BLOCK: Yeah, I think, I mean, one of - you know, I think a lot of this is still to be written. There's going to be so much - there already is and there will continue to be - so much dislocation. I mean, cites that existed before are not going to exist again where they were. Beichuan, I think, is going to be relocated. It's a city of tens of thousands of people. So I think the notion of, you know, cities helping each other, they are all a jumble now.

I mean, people have traveled many, many hundreds of miles. And also the people who have been left homeless, this is a sitting labor pool now. I mean, you hear about how many millions of migrant workers there are already in China, and I know Rob Gifford has reported on the fact that now these are people without homes, they need money and employers are coming from the eastern part of China. This is a sitting labor pool, and they can get this labor pretty cheap. So as many migrants as there were before, there are going to be that many more now.

CONAN: Hm. Here's an email from Michael in East Lansing, Michigan. Were there any stories that didn't make it to air?

BLOCK: Well, all the stories that I had done in April that suddenly seemed...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Completely tone-deaf one month later. I had finished 10 stories for this week of broadcast that we had planned. In the end, actually, a number of them did make it. They had to be completely re-reported, but they ended up being, in a way, much more interesting. I had prepared a story about dams and an ancient irrigation system in the city of Dujiangyan. All of a sudden, dams were really interesting, because there was a lot of fear that the dams would break, and that there would be this catastrophic flooding. So that's...

CONAN: Strike when the infrastructure iron is hot.

BLOCK: Yeah, well, exactly. So that story transformed itself in many, many ways. There are other stories, I think about four or five that still haven't run. Maybe there will be a place for - at some point it will be appropriate for me to be cooking kung pao chicken on the air, but probably not.

CONAN: Not for awhile.

BLOCK: Awhile.

CONAN: Robert, that dog story, you going to get to get that in?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Andrea, who was dogged in trying to get that story, we - you know, we desperately wanted to talk to the Communist Party, to people were joining the party at local universities. It was very difficult, and Andrea was constantly negotiating this. And ultimately, this - and they had no activity. And I wanted to record them doing something, or the Young Communist League doing something. And they had no activities at all for us to do. Then, they emerged as a coordinator of volunteer efforts and we found ourselves, you know, recording the scene of tremendous volunteer activity around the Young Community League. So, we got something on the air.

CONAN: Andrea Hsu, our producer with All Things Considered, hosts Melissa Block and Robert Siegel are with us. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And here's an email from Thad, in Canal Winchester, Ohio. I was wondering how you personally felt as you realized you were in a major earthquake, then covered its aftermath. On the one hand, it's a huge stroke of luck that you were already at the location where a major worldwide news story was taking place. You got the scoop, so to speak.

But on the other hand, you also personally experienced a gigantic tragedy. You interviewed families that had lost everything. You talked with parents whose children had been killed. It had to be heartbreaking. Also I can imagine it was terrifying to think that you, too, might be in danger. When it happened, were you glad that you were there? Looking back, have those feelings changed? And have you needed time to decompress after the ordeal? Melissa, you want to start?

BLOCK: Wow. That's a lot wrapped into one. Not - I wasn't smart enough to be terrified at the time the earthquake was happening. I think it was such a surreal experience to feel what was happening that I didn't have a sense to be terrified, and frankly, Chengdu was fine. I feel, in retrospect, very grateful to have been there at this time. It was a remarkable experience. We saw, I think, the best of people at the worst of times.

And I am grateful to be working for a news organization that had the resources to put us there and gave us the time on the air, and has a listenership that seemed to really respond to the stories and respond to having faces - or having voices and names to put with stories. These become very personal stories for a lot of our listeners, and that, to me, was very gratifying, to hear people saying, you know, we think of China as the bad guy, the supplier of poisoned food, or tainted toys. And now I feel like I understand the country in a whole new way.

CONAN: Andrea Hsu, I wonder if you wanted to weigh in on this.

HSU: I think I was pretty terrified at the time. I remember...

BLOCK: Andrea was terrified. She looked terrified.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HSU: I had the headphones on and I remember I was holding the microphone that I had been using to mike the pastor, and Melissa was holding her own microphone, and I remember hearing Melissa start taking, and I thought, oh, Melissa is doing a standup. But I think I actually was pretty terrified at the time, and I mean, in retrospect, I am glad that we were there, especially because I had been there for two months and I had met so many people who later became so helpful, so instrumental, to our coverage. And so I was glad to stay there, and I - actually, it was hard to leave, because I had been there for so long, had met so many people, and I felt very close to the story.

CONAN: And Robert?

SIEGEL: I was terrified at the time of the earthquake. I was in my room on the 27th floor of a hotel, and the hotel should not have been moving that much. And I ran down the stairs, and it took me until about the 10th floor to I realized that the building was not about to - I didn't think the building was coming down. I was very glad to be there. Like Melissa, I had been in New York for 9/11. She had worked there then. I'd just happened to be there by chance.

I think being in the news business, when you're someplace where something terrible happens, the way I figure it is, I would be obsessing over this anyway. If my job were to be a teacher or to be a salesman, I would be thinking about nothing but the earthquake or the tragedy downtown or something. In the news business, you get to do something, be useful, at that moment and to provide some kind of service. And I found that - I thought it was - I did need some time to play a little golf when we got back. But I felt the most therapeutic thing was to be able do something constructive and appropriate when this terrible tragedy was around us, and felt very good about it.

CONAN: Mm-hm. It was also - that situation - all of us, and I'm looking at the two people here who I know very well for many years, have called on members of other news organizations to bail us out when we didn't have reporter there.

SIEGEL: Yeah.

CONAN: What was it like to be in that situation here you were being called by NBC News and by CNN?

SIEGEL: You know, those - I took part in those calls at such ungodly hours...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Four o'clock in the morning, that I think I was beyond irony, beyond even reflecting on it. And it was sort of unusual to be on the NBC news. It was little less unusual to be talking to Gwen Ifill, whom I know, you know...

CONAN: Long time.

SIEGEL: Is on the NewsHour, and I've known Gwen for a long time. But no, those calls all took place at such strange times that...

CONAN: Unreal.

SIEGEL: We just did what they told us from Washington to do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: The first time and last time that will happen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And one final question, who's doing the show tonight?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Michele!

CONAN: Michele is doing the show.

BLOCK: Thank goodness for Michele Norris.

CONAN: Andrea Hsu, thanks very much for being with us today. We appreciate your time so much.

HSU: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Andrea Hsu joined us in the studios of member station KTYD in Santa Barbara, California. Melissa Block and Robert Siegel were with us here at the Newseum. We appreciate your time, and again, thank you so much for your reporting.

BLOCK: Thanks a lot, Neal.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And this is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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