When Life Hands You Dead Pigs ...

... make the best of it. China's response to its latest environmental catastrophe shows an evolving grasp of PR.


The number of dead pigs found in Shanghai's Huangpu River keeps rising. (Aly Song/Reuters)

Obviously, it is not a good thing at all that there are, by the latest count, 14,000 pig carcasses floating in the river that feeds into Shanghai's drinking water supply.

Nonetheless, the scandal has prompted China's government, via the country's state-owned media, to acknowledge the nation's intense problem with food safety and to address the dangers lurking in peoples' food bowls.

China's government-backed press is covering the dead hog disaster with something approaching an open and critical tone. The domestic media has not been given carte blanche to report freely. Still, the fact that there is no cover up is a positive step.

Compare that with the toxic milk scandal in 2008, which the government banned from the Chinese media for months. Ignorant of the danger, parents continued to feed their kids poisoned milk. Six babies died and hundreds of thousands more were injured. Or, for that matter, the cover-up of severe acute respiratory syndrome--better known as SARS--in 2003.

Of course, this does not signal an end to media censorship in China. The nation's new leaders under President Xi Jinping remain enthusiastic media muzzlers (paywall). But it does show that Communist Party chiefs, instead of just fearing negative media coverage, are learning to use it to achieve political goals.

In this case, the party leaders are subjecting farmers and the lower level bureaucrats who have done a bad job of policing the food chain to public shame as a way of reminding them that shoddy practices are unacceptable. And that could be more effective than a cover-up.

And state news agency Xinhua reported early on that the pigs had left traces of a porcine virus in the Huangpu River, which bisects Shanghai, noting that the virus could not spread to humans. And while that may not have seemed immediately believable, a report in Bloomberg aired the same theory . Meanwhile, more independent newspapers have got away with reporting the pig story in a tone critical of the government. The 21st Century Business Herald, which is known for running challenging articles when it can, commented in this March 11 report (in Chinese) that government officials: "to avoid risks of viruses entering the water, should make sure sick and diseased pigs do not enter the market in the first place."

The state-run People's Daily Online also ran this March 21 opinion piece , written by a foreigner, arguing that the problem of pig farmers flinging carcasses into the water showed China had a "world is my trashcan" mentality and that people must work harder to care for the environment by disposing properly of their waste.

And there is also some evidence that the censors who patrol Chinese micro-blogging site Sina Weibo are taking a light touch approach to critical comments.

A selection of cynical posts that have survived on the site include:

Sydney Opal : "The dead pigs are a major public health issue...and the origin of this lamentable state of affairs is a political system where officials are not directly held responsible for their actions and do not do their jobs properly."

Dragon_Daxia : "So the Shanghai dead pigs have shocked the world...But what about the millions of tonnes of everyday garbage that gets chucked into the Yangtze river each year."

Qiu Yuchong : "Did these pigs all commit suicide because they did not want to continue living in China?"

Naomi Rovnick is a Quartz correspondent based in Taiwan.

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