The Disappearance of China Air

To be completely crass, disaster relief and humanitarian aid is huge opportunity to score points with locals. It is, however, best when it is not done blatantly, but making it clear where the aid was coming from both gives your side points and potentially denies opportunities to competitors.

Reading The New York Times on my Blackberry Thursday morning, the article “Haiti Lies in Ruins; Grim Search for Untold Dead” by Simon Romero and Marc Lacey, dated January 14, 2010, struck a nerve. These are the first two paragraphs as they still read on my Blackberry:

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Foreign aid trickled into Haiti’s devastated capital on Thursday morning as the victims of Tuesday’s earthquake, many of them injured and homeless, began to wake from another night spent in makeshift accommodations or out in the open.

A China Air plane landed early Thursday with a search team, medical workers and aid, The Associated Press reported. …

The third paragraph described a “few sport-utility vehicles driven by United Nations personnel plied streets.” The UN appears again in the fourth paragraph, but the context is how many were killed or missing. The ninth paragraph resume the aid theme and opens,

Governments and aid agencies from Beijing to Grand Rapids began marshaling supplies and staffs to send here, though the obstacles proved frustrating just one after the powerful 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit.

The American Red Cross gets two of the following paragraphs. It is not until the 15th and 16ht paragraphs that the US gets attention.

President Obama promised that Haiti would have the “unwavering support” of the United States.

Mr. Obama said that United States aid agencies were moving swiftly to get help to Haiti and that search-and-rescue teams were en route. …

The second paragraph concluded with the President’s urging Americans to go to the White House’s website to find ways to donate money.

imageThis article was stunning because of how China was portrayed: immediately engaged and on the ground. Where was the US? Romero and Lacey didn’t bother to even mention the US until late in the article and when they did, it was a promise of future action.

I had to manually type the story above because the online version was very different. At The New York Times website, the online edition of the same story, with the same title and same picture, did not mention China Air and Romero had the byline to himself. Had the version changed? Shouldn’t there be a note to that effect?

imageInterestingly, the cache of the NYT search engine still had an old extract of the article. So to did other organizations drawing a feed from the NYT, such as the Rio Grande Guardian.

Another version of the story can be found at the San Francisco Sentinel. image

The AP also relayed word January 13, 2010, from China that eight Chinese peacekeepers were killed and ten others were missing.

A Wall Street Journal blog reported early January 14 that “Chinese Relief Team Lands in Port-au-Prince“.

Help began arriving early Thursday when an Air China plane carrying a Chinese relief team landed at Port-au-Prince airport, and more than 50 people in orange jumpsuits accompanied by trained dogs got out, according to the Associated Press.

China said the plane carried a search and rescue crew, medics, seismological experts as well as 10 tons of food, medicine and other supplies.

“Most of the members are very experienced,” Liu Xiangyang, deputy chief of the National Earthquake Disaster Emergency Rescue Team, told the official Xinhua News Agency before their departure. China’s Red Cross has also offered emergency funding of $1 million to Haiti.

And, oh, by the way,

The U.S. and other nations said they were sending food, water, medical supplies to assist the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, where the international Red Cross estimated three million people — a third of the population — may need emergency relief.

The combination of the swiftness of the Chinese action, the high-observability of this action (no doubt with help – smart move), and then the disappearance of the same is something to watch. Did the NYT remove the AP reporting because it wasn’t true or because it didn’t look good?

Aid is inherently a positive engagement opportunity, but such a sensitive time means too much attention can backfire and not enough means you somebody else may take credit or your act is erased that much more swiftly.

I have to admit that I haven’t had time to follow the relief operation, or lack of, or the information dissemination and relaying going on. I have heard from others that the State Department – at least Alec Ross and other high profile and senior individuals – have been engaging in online conversations whereas the Defense Department with its public affairs in over drive is doing what public affairs traditionally does: pump out facts.

Galrahn and I talked this evening about this. We’re both sure we’ll see more of this subtle struggle for minds with the Chinese in the immediate future.

What have you observed?

See also:

  • The 1947 Smith-Mundt CODEL to Europe

    The Congress and people of the United States have now under consideration a multibillion dollar program to restore Europe and thwart Communism [the Marshall Plan]. Commendable and necessary as this is, we have nevertheless been too preoccupied in the past with feeding the stomachs of people while the Soviets have concentrated on feeding their minds. … We may help avert starvation but in the process produce a generation of healthy Europeans whose minds are poisoned against us and whose loyalties are to the red star of Soviet Russia. If this occurs, our generosity would be surpassed only by our own ineptitude.

7 thoughts on “The Disappearance of China Air

  1. FYI, the print edition of the NYT carried the Romero-only version, beginning “Survivors strained desperately…,” as the front page lead. The second article on the disaster, advertised on the front page, was described as “IN WASHINGTON President Obama moved quickly to send help to Haiti, pledging unwavering support.

  2. Matt,This is an excellent beginning of an important thread. I, too was stunned by the Chinese big-foot early in the story. Perhaps in thinking about how to respond, the historical analogy that came to mind with many of the Obama/Clinton advisors was Somalia. Anyone affiliated with the earlier Clinton administration will certainly pause when recalling how a humanitarian intervention to feed the starving ended in Black Hawk down and a total pull out. In the case of Haiti as well as Somalia there is the additional complexity of strong UN involvement. Slow off the mark, the American response has built over the last three days until it today’s announcement has 10,000 troops being deployed. The United States will ultimately own this story. Whether that will be a good narrative or not will depend on how events unfold. Good intentions will certainly not be enough.

  3. There is no official airline called “China Air”China Airlines is the Taiwan airline.
    Air China is the PRC state airline (second largest in China after PRC’s China Southern).
    Both airlines are often called “China Air” but there is in fact no “China Air”
    But from the Taiwan based China Airlines web sit comes this news:
    China Airlines Carries Emergency Relief Goods To Haiti
    CAL e-Message
    January 14, 2010, Taipei, Taiwan – In response to Haiti’s immediate need for disaster aid in the wake of its devastating earthquake, China Airlines urgently re-arranged seats on flight CI-008 on January 13, to include 23 rescue team members, and provided cargo space in the belly of the plane to carry relief goods.
    The relief supplies, provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of China, including emergency medical rescue equipment, life searching gear, and other rescue materials, weighed two tons, and were transported free of charge by China Airlines. The relief shipment arrived at Los Angeles airport this morning at 10:14 Taipei time, and it will be immediately transferred to Haiti via the Dominican Republic.
    China Airlines has committed itself to providing humanitarian aid wherever it is needed, and additional delivery of emergency goods from Taiwan to help the recovery of Haiti can be expected.
    But I found the below news article as well (interestingly the official China Airlines (Taiwan) had news about Haiti and links to news on its official web site while Air China (PRC) was all about tours and travel and nothing about any kind of public service or news about the good things it might be doing – comparing the two web sites – the PRC Air China appeared more “capitalist oriented” while the Taiwanese China Airlines appeared to want to call attention to its “socially responsible actions”.):
    China leads start of aid lift into Haiti
    (AFP) – 1 day ago
    PORT-AU-PRINCE — A planeload of Chinese soldiers led the start of a flow of aid into the Caribbean nation of Haiti early Thursday, two days after it was devastated by a powerful earthquake.
    Chinese military unloaded 20 tonnes of relief supplies from an Air China flight under the watch of UN Chinese soldiers.
    Some 50 Chinese rescue personnel and three sniffer dogs left in minibuses emblazoned with the UN logo, heading into scenes of devastation and despair.
    Amid mounting fears for thousands still trapped under the ruins, particularly in the capital of Port-au-Prince, an international aid operation was swinging into gear in a desperate race against time.
    The tarmac at the capital’s international airport was welcoming the first trickle of aid, which was set to soon start pouring into Haiti in the coming hours.
    “The UN has been coordinating since this morning all of the international aid arriving at the airport and will also distribute the help by nationality across the different site,” Commander Samuel Bernes told AFP.
    He was with two French units of firefighters who arrived Thursday just behind the Chinese, equipped with six sniffer dogs.
    “The military unit’s mission is to first relieve Guadeloupean volunteer firemen who have already been working for several hours, while looking for other sites to deploy the remainder of national security units.”
    There are fears that the death following Tuesday’s 7.0 quake could stretch into the tens of thousands.
    An urban search and rescue team from Fairfax, Virginia, was already out at first light combing the rubble with sniffer dogs for survivors.
    The 72 staff, including paramedics and six dogs brought with them 43 tonnes of rescue equipment and supplies.
    Meanwhile, in a desperate bid to leave, civilians crowded Port-au-Prince airport, which was functioning although its control tower was down.
    Copyright © 2010 AFP. All rights reserved. More »

  4. Matt,I’d caution against reading too much strategic thought into the very rushed craft of editing news dispatches from breaking news locations. Especially in a disaster area, the immediacy is achieved by anecdotal dispatches from people on the ground with limited understanding of the big picture. Editors back at the home office face something akin to the reverse, lots of big-picture and a mountain of local reports from diverse sources that they all have to blend together. Then the print edition and online editions frequently go through different editors.
    On the face of it, the online edition of this story contains principle reporting from one correspondent while the print edition merges two of them, adding the writer with the observation about China airlift.
    Vince Crawley

  5. Regardless of the story compilation via different authors, your point comes through loud and clear: American “soft power” is too late once again (reminiscent of the Lebanon evacuation of American citizens (and Haiti is in or back yard so to speak)). To add injury to insult, most Haitians have a strong dislike for the U.S. military – so we sent in the 82nd and a complement of Marines! It will take a major shift in policy to regain the ground we continue to lose.

  6. Are we now to be obsessed now about the China coverage in a crisis that calls on the world’s best collective efforts? Frankly, I’m impressed by Fairfax County’s footprint; I’d love to take a look at their PD strategy. Same for Dade County, FL. Wanna bet that a heck of a lot more Haitian babies born in the past few days will be named Israel than China????Matt, take a look at Brazilian TV; you have a huge country, the lead UN peacekeeper, keeping a proud 24/7 eye on Haiti. Keep in mind that far more official Brazilians have died than Americans. Keep in mind too that millions of Africans really watch Brazilian TV; it’s far more interesting than China’s, or for that matter, ours.
    At the end of the day, are the Haitians really watching or reading any of this, whether Chinese, American, Brazilian, or Israeli? They never did have much in the way of a TV culture. Now, they don’t even have the batteries for radio. But the last “narrative” we don’t want is driven the sight of all those battle-fatigued gringoes sticking around Haiti for two decades, again.

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