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China dials up propaganda over Turkish rescue effort; Taiwan also sends team

Taiwan Fire Department (玄 史生/WikiCommons)
February 21, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

China has been ramping up propaganda around its rescue mission to help victims of the devastating earthquake that hit regions of Turkey and Syria earlier this month that killed at least 42,000 people.

State broadcaster CCTV, state news agency Xinhua and the People’s Daily newspaper have all sent reporters embedded with Chinese teams searching for survivors, with live broadcasts from the scene of the disaster.

Meanwhile, democratic Taiwan sent out its own 130-strong urban rescue team and medical workers to aid the relief effort, although they were assigned to different sectors of the vast disaster zone, and so were unlikely to meet in the field.

Dutch-born sinologist Manya Koetse, who tracks Chinese social media platforms on her English-language website, What’s on Weibo, said official Chinese media had ramped up its reporting soon after the Turkey-Syria quake on Feb. 6, trying to portray China as a responsible major world power.

The first shipment of relief supplies from mainland China including blankets and tents urgently needed in the quake-hit areas arrived in Istanbul on Feb. 11, with electrocardiogram and ultrasound machines, medical transport vehicles and hospital beds arriving later in the same week, the Global Times newspaper reported.

“After the earthquakes, the Chinese government sent an 82-member rescue team … and the Hong Kong government also sent a 59-member rescue team to assist in local rescue efforts,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a regular news briefing in Beijing on Feb. 15. They were joined by 441 rescuers from 17 private Chinese emergency response teams.”

He said that the teams are continuing to look for survivors despite the fact that the “golden window” for finding anyone alive in rubble has now passed.

Irrelevant bridge

China’s consul general in Belfast, Zhang Meifang, tweeted a photo of the Chinese-built Canakkale suspension bridge on Feb. 13, boasting that it had “withstood the earthquake.”

The tweet was deleted after people pointed out that the bridge is more than 1,000 kilometers from the epicenter of the quake, and that it was built by a multinational team including Korean, Turkish and Danish companies.

China’s Sichuan Road and Bridge Co. only installed the steel box girders in December 2020.

Çağdaş Üngör, an academic who studies Sino-Turkish relations and the Chinese Communist Party’s influence operations in Istanbul, said the tweet was “outrageous.”

“I feel that this kind of political propaganda is really too much right now,” she said. “It goes far beyond the scope of public relations or advertising. What’s even more outrageous is that [that bridge] is nowhere near the quake zone.”

Turkish news anchor Nevsin Mengu also hit out at Beijing’s boasting.

“China is busy with political propaganda,” he said of a video clip of the Canakkale bridge also posted by Zhang Meifang. “Authoritarian countries like China and Turkey seem to have similarly bad taste in music,” he quipped about the music used as a soundtrack to the video.

Zhang eventually deleted her post some 10 hours after posting, but with no explanation, and not before it had been viewed more than 200,000 times and retweeted by the Chinese Embassy in Paris.

Taiwan sends team

Taiwan’s mobilization to assist in rescue efforts was the largest in the history of the island’s international humanitarian aid program, search and rescue team inspector Hsu Yu-wen told Radio Free Asia from southern Turkey. 

“We sent a total of 130 search and rescue personnel in two groups, including doctors, nurses and veterinarians, as well as five search and rescue dogs and 13 tons of rescue equipment,” Hsu said. A second group consisted of a special plane to fly 90 search and rescue personnel directly to Turkey.

Hwang Pei-tsun, who led the Taiwanese team, said many of his doctors had been helping amputate the limbs of people found alive in the rubble, with photos of them saving people fed to the media by the country’s fire department.

“[In one case], the person’s hand and foot had already turned black, so they focused on saving the hand, then amputated the leg up to the knee and brought them out,” Hwang said. “[At first] there were no vital signs, but they brought her out and kept doing CPR and shocking them, then followed the ambulance to the hospital.”

While that victim was dead on arrival, the rescue teams turned around and went back to find more.

“The ambulance sirens have been going non-stop for 24 hours,” Hwang said, against a constant background of emergency sirens.

Both teams were listed on a United Nations web page detailing international teams working in Turkey, in an unusual instance of international recognition for Taiwan, which has been frozen out of participation in international organizations by Beijing’s insistent territorial claims, which it calls the “one China” principle.