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.