HONG KONG — The looming anniversary of a deadly Sichuan earthquake has been named “Thanksgiving Day” by local government officials, drawing scorn from Chinese internet users who feel the government should be honoring the dead instead.
The magnitude-7.9 earthquake on May 12, 2008, killed at least 69,000 people, including thousands of children whose classrooms collapsed. While the government directed substantial resources into rebuilding, the collapse of poorly built schools across the earthquake-prone zone remains a symbol of government apathy and a source of national heartbreak.
After Wenchuan County officials announced the day of thanksgiving to mark the anniversary on Saturday, the state news media described “beautiful, tidy buildings” that now populate the most ravaged disaster zone. The report noted that local residents often expressed their indebtedness for the “gushing springs of generosity” they had received — a sentimental adage.
Echoing the hyperbolic phrases used in the state news media, the viral news aggregator Toutiao said in a post that earthquake victims felt “gushing springs of gratitude” for the “big love” that streamed into the region from all corners of the country.
The heavy-handed focus on gratitude drew an overwhelming backlash from Chinese internet users who responded to Toutiao’s post on Weibo, a microblogging site.
“Everyone knows that the earthquake killed tens of thousands of people on that day, and yet you call it ‘Thanksgiving Day,’” a Weibo user said. “What do we give thanks for?”
“Can’t it be called ‘Memorial Day?’” another user asked. “Gratitude at the tip of the tongue is the most hypocritical way of giving thanks.”
Others suggested alternative names for the anniversary: “Day of the Earthquake Victims,” “Day of Suffering” and even “Day of Shame.”
China has long portrayed those who endure extreme suffering as models of resilience. In an extended “Thanksgiving Day” report, Xinhua presented stories of the quake’s child survivors who have grown up to serve the country.
One boy who was photographed after the disaster encouraging rescue troops is now in training to become an army doctor. Another was photographed then with a sign that read, “I want to be a paratrooper when I grow up.” And sure enough, he became one.
“The stories not only create a positive narrative about the victims, but their choice of professions also shows how the tragedy brought them closer to the state,” said Suzanne Scoggins, an assistant professor of political science at Clark University in Massachusetts.
Some critics said the government’s messaging allowed it to deflect public discontent that surfaced after the quake. In anticipation of sensitive anniversaries, the propaganda authorities often instruct the state news media to “cast tragedy in a new light” in order to pre-empt reflections on “political and institutional failures,” said David Bandurski, a co-director of the Chinese Media Project and a fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.
A Weibo user assailed the reframing of the earthquake anniversary as “utterly thoughtless,” saying it “shirks responsibility.”
“This is clearly a tragedy, and yet it’s made into a celebration,” another Weibo user said. Then, referencing a propaganda term derisively, he asked, “Is this a Chinese characteristic?”
By reframing the quake anniversary as a day of thanksgiving, local officials are probably trying to forge an atmosphere of unity, reinforcing “the way in which government groups and residents worked together,” Professor Scoggins said.
But Chinese internet users remained cynical about the government’s positive spin.
“Only after seeing these comments do I realize the world is sane,” a Weibo user wrote in response to the “Thanksgiving Day” announcement. “Unlike this crazy piece of copy.”
Follow Tiffany May on Twitter: @nytmay.