Published: 2008-05-21

Cinemas closed. Karaoke outlets suspended operation. Television networks and radio stations ceased broadcasting entertainment programs. Gaming and movie sharing websites halted downloads.

On May 21, as China entered its third and last day of national mourning for earthquake victims, most amusement centers across the country had rescheduled time slot for screenings, performances, and entertainment as a gesture of mourning for the approximately 40,000 killed in and following the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan.

On satellite networks, channels previously slotted for entertainment programs, such as the movie channel HBO, had been replaced by special reports on the on going rescue efforts.

Local television stations which were previously scheduled soap dramas, ran news or special earthquake-related programs almost exclusively.

The virtual space was no exception; a popular online movie-sharing site in China, Fengxing, had replaced its pages of movie listings for download with condolence messages, a donation drive, and updates on the earthquake situation. Some of the gaming websites had also blocked games on the first day of mourning.

There appeared to be a wave of national solidarity in mourning, with Chinese businesses and individuals responding to the call of a government circular to suspend all public amusement during the three-day mourning period from May 19 to 21.

Though a deep sense of grief was genuinely felt by most Chinese – evident in the number that swarmed venues for the three-minute silent ceremony on Monday nationwide, the droves of volunteers and the active online forums on earthquake – some felt peer pressure was also at play in infusing an imposed sense of mourning.

"To a certain extend, I think peer and social pressure on individuals, and even companies, to behave in line with the values and emotion of the majority is involved here," said one media worker.

She gave the example of many online news sites and portals switching to black-and-white or grey scale design as a sign of mourning. She believed it was a genuine and voluntary act to show respect, but some might have followed suit subconsciously as to not to be seen as disrespectful and lose support.

"I do wish to switch to some other programs sometimes, but there’s no other choice on television," said a shopkeeper, whose only pastime while manning the tiny cigarette shop in Beijing for 14 hours a day was viewing television programs.

The television set placed in a corner of the shop used to play through soap drama to another like a loop. The shopkeeper added: "I didn’t mean that I dislike the special reports on the earthquake. In fact, I am deeply moved and cried over some of the stories. But the long hours of watching such programs depressed me a lot."

A resident from Tianjin, Bai Yang, said the call to stay off amusement for three days did not affect her much, as she hardly visited entertainment outlets. However, she admitted that watching the special reports on local channels for long hours brought her and her mother sleepless nights.

She said that her family had of late switched to watching CCTV10, the national educational channel, which still contained programs other than earthquake-related reports. She added: "I believe one needs to slowly digest the grief in his or her own private space. I guess it is time to stay away from the media influence too."

To Chen Shuang, who works for an advertising company in Beijing, the grieving was less important than scrutinizing rescue funds. He said in jest: "We call amusement by another name – corruption. These three days, there’s no corruption across the country, there’s also no corruption in donation drives."

He said he and his friends were worried about fund abuses but continued to donate because that was the only way they could help. Yet all the news and reports on donation drives of late could not give them a 100% confidence in fund usage, he said.

As main information channels in public space were filled with earthquake-related material, the netizen community was especially active in discussion and had used open information to rate the performance and responses of public figures, companies and even individuals on the issue.

For example, netizens had scrutinized donations made by various corporate figures and companies, criticizing those deemed as giving too little and calling to buy products by companies that had pledged larger contributions.