The tragedy of the recent earthquake in central China, which has claimed over 20,000 lives at last count, has just the smallest bit of silver lining. The Chinese government has been uncharacteristically loose with information, and millions of Chinese netizens are, for the first time, almost completely uncensored.

China now boasts the world's largest mobile phone and Internet user base—about 574 million have cellphones and 221 million are regularly logged online. Chinese witnesses to the Sichuan quake's wreckage are flooding websites with videos, first-hand accounts and—most impressively—criticism of government-sponsored rescue attempts. Even the state-controlled media has gained the freedom to show distressing images without having to go through the usual censorship bodies.


Though there is little hope that the Chinese government will stay as hands-off as it has been the last week, its behavior is a far cry from the last time China encountered such a devastating natural disaster. In 1976, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake hit Tangshan province. Chinese censors clamped down immediately and the actual death toll from the event (anywhere between 240,000 to 779,000) is still up in the air. [AP]

(photo from Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

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