Doomsday: How the World’s Media Is Covering the Mayan Apocalypse

Liu Qiyuan Doomsday - H 2012
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While the Vatican gives the all-clear, Chinese crack down on doomsday cults and Australia’s Prime Minister warns of a K-Pop Armageddon.

The Chinese, at least, are taking the apocalypse seriously.

Around the world this week TV stations, DJs and even some politicians are using December 21, 2012 – the final day of the Mayan long count calendar – as an excuse for quirky doomsday specials and easy one-liners. But not in China, where Armageddon is no laughing matter.

Police in China have arrested around 1,000 members of doomsday cult whose members posted on Sina Wiebo, China’s version of Twitter, that Dec. 21 would bring “three days of darkness” and urged followers to overthrow communism. Chinese state media is cracking down on anyone predicting that the world will end on 12/21/2012.  

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The Mayan date for the end of the world has gained popularity in China thanks to Roland Emmerich’s disaster film 2012, which was a box office hit, earning nearly $70 million there. The film’s plot has the Chinese military building huge arks to save humanity. 

Inspired by the movie, Liu Qiyuan, a Chinese farmer that lives in Hebei province, built a series of seven survival pods, with space for 14 people each, which he says will float above the rising oceans. Another Chinese doomsday “prepper," Lu Zhenhai, also got international media attention after he sunk his life savings – reportedly around $160,000 – into building an indestructible ark.

In Russia, a newspaper article, reportedly written by a Tibetan monk, confirming the end of the world, led to a run on kerosene, salt and other supplies. But most Russians seemed to be taking the apocalypse in stride. Shopkeepers in Moscow were hawking doomsday kits containing a fifth of vodka, a bar of soap and a piece of rope.

And on Thursday, Dec. 20, Russian president Vladimir Putin held a special press conference where he announced that the world would end…in 4.5 billion years.

Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian prime minister, made a somewhat less comforting statement on Russian TV: "I don't believe in the end of the world," he told the nation, before adding: "At least, not this year."

Across Western Europe, the Mayan deadline was used mainly to fill a slow news day ahead of the Christmas holiday. The BBC ran several color stories on the Mayan calendar, most of them debunking the idea that the Mayans expected the world to end on Dec. 21, with experts pundits pointing out that the date simply marks the beginning of a new calendar cycle. Professor Brian Cox, the BBC’s go-to on air astronomer, made a point of reassuring Brits that there were no celestial events due that would cause an apocalypse.

Music station BBC Radio 6 filled time with an end-of-the-world party playlist, including such doomsday favorites as Muse’s "Apocalypse Please," "The End" by The Doors and, of course, REM’s "It's The End of The World as We Know It."

Even the Vatican's chief astronomer felt the need to get into the doomsday act.

"In the media and on the internet there is a great deal of talk of the end of the world, which the Mayans supposedly predicted for Dec 21. If you do a search on Google, you get 40 million results on the topic," wrote Father Jose Gabriel Funes, the director of the Vatican Observatory, in a front-page editorial titled "The end is not nigh – at least for now" in L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s daily newspaper.

Over in Australia, Prime Minister Julia Gillard milked the Mayan Apocalypse for laughs. In a spoof video address recorded for youth radio station Triple J earlier this month, a somber looking Gillard admitted “the end of the world is coming,” before warning that infections K-Pop – think Psy and his hit "Gangnam Style" -  could be the cause of the planet’s demise.

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"Whether the final blow comes from flesh-eating zombies, demonic hell-beasts or from the total triumph of K-Pop, if you know one thing about me it is this -- I will always fight for you to the very end,” she said, tongue firmly in cheek.

In the Yucatan Peninsula, the Mayan heartland, residents view apocalypse less as a threat than a business opportunity as a flurry of global broadcasters - including National Geographic, Discovery Channel, History and Showtime – have filmed in the region.

"Everybody is working to exploit the end of the world theory," Rene Blanco of Cancun-based production services company Riviera Maya Films told THR.

The locals, at least, don’t seem to be too worried. Mexican broadcaster Televisa plans to re-run its three-part series Apocalipsis Maya on Dec. 22 -- the day after the end of the world.

John Hecht in Mexico City contributed to this report.