Carrying a Torch for Earthquake Victims: Beijing Gets a Nudge from China’s Netizens

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My colleague Jodi Xu writes about the Chinese blogsphere and the Olympic Torch relay:

The day after a devastating earthquake shook China’s mid-western Sichuan Province, the Chinese government announced changes in the torch relay aimed at honoring those who died in the quake including the observation of a minute’s silence before the start of each leg. While the swift changes were welcomed as appropriate considering the gravity of the quake, they weren’t entirely spontaneous. China’s netizens can rightly take some pride in brining those decisions about. Within hours after the earthquake, online forums were filled with posts condemning the Torch Relay. On Tianya, one of the biggest forums in China, there were suggestions that all the torch bearers wear black armbands. “The purpose of the move”, said one poster, “is to solicit more attention to the earthquake around the globe and to show the unity of Chinese people during calamity.” Others believed the torch relay route, which will be getting closer to the hardest hit areas within a few weeks, should be altered for safety reasons.

Some posters even urged the suspension of the torch relay altogether, with the money saved going to the stricken regions. One poster calling himself Debussy commented that it was ridiculous not to suspend the torch relay after such a tragedy. “Whether China is even to host the Olympics should be reconsidered after such a horrible earthquake,” he wrote.

Such sentiment wasn’t just confined to online rants, either. A prominent critic from the official Liberation Daily, Huang Fuping, wrote: “To continue to splurge on torch relay in this moment is to neglect the stringency of the disaster relief and is not in tune with the grief that the Chinese are feeling right now.”

In response, the spokesperson of the Beijing Olympics Committee –widely known by its unlovely acronym, BOCOG– said on Tuesday May 13th that starting from the leg in Jiangxi Province, the morning ceremony would be replaced by a one-minute silent salute to the victims of the natural disaster. The procedure for torch transferring, said Li Zhanjun, director of the press center of BOCOG, would be curtailed to the most simple and practical. Donation boxes and banners that carry encouraging slogans about relief efforts would be put up at each stop of the relay and alongside the route. The route, which will pass through Sichuan province in a month, will remain unchanged for the time being, Li said, unless there is evidence of unsafe conditions.

The government’s speedy alteration of the torch relay, though different from what some bloggers had hoped for, received widespread plaudits online as a move that would “make this Olympics torch relay the most humane one in history,” as one blogger put it. People also voted with their wallets. On Wednesday alone, during the relay in Jinggangshan City donation on the torch route amounted to some RMB 16 million (US$ 2.3 million).