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Wall-to-wall coverage of superstorm Sandy provokes controversy in China

Superstorm Sandy made landfall Monday evening on a destructive and deadly path across the Northeast.

BEIJING – As Hurricane Sandy barreled down on the Eastern Seaboard this week, a nation's eyes were glued to the extensive media coverage of the storm.

We're talking about China, of course.

Yes, the major American networks gave viewers non-stop updates of the storm's movements and the damage left in its wake, but Chinese state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) was also in the game.

With already more than 150 employees in Washington, D.C., alone – about a third of them Chinese nationals – CCTV boasts the means to provide extensive coverage of major events outside of its home country.

However, just because CCTV can offer wall-to-wall coverage of Sandy – already being called the costliest storm in U.S. history – doesn't mean its audience is prepared to watch.

Certainly not at the cost of local stories that Chinese viewers want to hear about.

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As the storm played out and CCTV provided near-continuous coverage, comments on China's popular Twitter-like service, Weibo, exploded – over 6 million at this point, making it easily the biggest trending topic on the site. Many were overwhelmingly negative and criticized CCTV's handling of superstorm Sandy.

Their complaint: CCTV was so singularly focused on coverage of the American storm that the Chinese state broadcaster had stopped covering news in China, ironically transforming instead into what many here called mockingly "the conscience of the United States."

Or as a popular online cartoonist who goes by the pen name "Murong Aoao" sardonically put it: "CCTV is an excellent American media company."

Courtesy Murong Aoao

Murong Aoao's cartoon about Chinese TV coverage of Sandy.

In a cartoon that has been shared more than 50,000 times on Weibo, Murong paints what appears to be a CCTV reporter or government employee pointing to what is assumed is the United States while calling out, "Look! His house is on fire!" all while he himself is ablaze.

Asked why he drew the cartoon, Murong simply told NBC News: "It wasn't a big deal, it was just a way to ridicule the coverage."

The cartoon encapsulates the anger that has been laced through much of the online dialogue over CCTV's coverage.

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Much of the frustration conveyed in Murong's cartoon is rooted in the fact that CCTV's reporting on the storm and other American disasters in the past often superseded local stories here in China that netizens believe demand coverage. Most noticeably, a week-long protest in the eastern city of Ningbo over local government plans to build a controversial chemical plant there has been ignored.

In the eastern Chinese city of Ningbo officials have halted the planned expansion of a chemical plant, following days of public protests. ITN's China Correspondent Angus Walker reports.

State media was allegedly warned not to cover the story and when thousands flocked to the streets of Ningbo to peacefully protest the plant, only foreign media could be seen in the city reporting on the gatherings, sparking applause from grateful locals.

"CCTV sends lots of correspondents to the U.S. to report on Sandy," complained one irate user. "Why don't they have time for Ningbo, but plenty for America?"

"Because the leaders' relatives are in the U.S., they care!" went the chorus of replies to the poster.

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Indeed, this notion that CCTV's Sandy coverage was more for the benefit of Chinese government officials – many of whom are known to have their family members and financial assets in the U.S. – than everyday people was a persistent joke underlying many of the posts in recent days.

Aerial footage reveals devastation from New York City to North Carolina's Outer Banks in the wake of superstorm Sandy.

"CCTV is not to blame, there are so many leaders' children and relatives studying and working in New York and the East Coast," wrote one Weibo user. "If CCTV does not report on these huge hurricanes when they happen, how will the leaders who don't speak English find out what's going on with their loved ones?"

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Despite the biting cynicism, frustration and humor conveyed by Web users about CCTV's Sandy coverage, the overwhelming message on Weibo was concern and support for those who had suffered due to the storm.

One day after Sandy slammed into the East Coast, NBC News' Lester Holt reports on the record-breaking hybrid storm system that swamped neighborhoods, paralyzed the nation's biggest city, and left millions of families from the Carolinas to Ohio without power.

Messages from families and friends attempting to reconnect with loved ones in the affected areas and heartfelt posts of support for Americans coming out of the storm were continuing well into Wednesday.

They reveal a friendly, empathetic connection between China and the United States that all too often is lost in the often daily rounds of political bashing from both sides of the Pacific.

NBC News' Yanzhou Liu and Johanna Armstrong contributed to this report.

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