Chinese Quake Toll, 69,172, Is Just a Guess

In the New York Times, Howard French looks at how accurate and transparent the government information about the recent earthquake really is:

In some ways, China’s response to the disaster was a break with past practices of secrecy and tight government control. Chinese journalists reported from the scene with unaccustomed freedom in the early days after the quake, and volunteer workers and donations poured into Sichuan Province from all over the country, as well as from abroad, demonstrating a kind of civic activism new to China.

In other respects, though, the crisis has revealed a country ill prepared for a major emergency, with an emergency response system unused to satisfying the public’s hunger for information.

Few matters highlighted these shortcomings more than the process of accounting for the dead and the missing. Methods of tallying the two categories varied widely from place to place. In some localities, the toll was ascertained through body counts, other direct physical evidence or witness accounts. In other areas, mostly guesswork prevailed.

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