I thought I had stepped into a movie studio by mistake when I went to a public hospital last week to watch Shenzhen's first blackout exercise. A man was standing before a doctor and some nurses, busily giving them instructions. Behind him stood a TV camera crew and a team of photographers. 'You should run to the door instead of walking to it,' he reminded a young nurse. 'That will give a sense of urgency to the scene.' 'And you,' he said, turning to a doctor, 'don't move until you see my signal.' Then all the lights went out. But nobody appeared to be surprised: everyone remained in place. 'Now!' the man said, waving his arms like movie director Peter Jackson making Lord of the Rings, and everybody abruptly went into action. Nurses calmly switched on the backup power generator and began laying out medical tools. The doctor directed the rest of the staff to move a 'patient' from an ambulance to the operating table. 'Good', the TV producer said, with a smile. 'You guys will look great on this evening's news.' To many outsiders, it might be a bit strange to have a TV producer directing a blackout drill. But such practice is commonplace on the mainland. People are afraid of making embarrassing mistakes or exposing flaws in emergency systems. Thus, many so-called 'drills' are carefully staged, to show the public how well the government's plans will work - rather than testing them to see if they actually work. Such 'drills' usually turn into propaganda stunts rather than practice sessions to learn the best way to handle an emergency. This is a pity, because Shenzhen badly needs to know how to handle a crisis situation. The city constantly faces the risk of blackouts because of electricity shortages and typhoons. Shenzhen is long overdue for an extensive blackout drill to see if the government's emergency plans really work. More than 10 million people live here, and the city has one of the mainland's two stock exchanges. It also boasts the world's busiest border checkpoints. A sudden loss of electrical power could cause chaos. It is crucial that key public services know how to respond when such crises occur. They should have a tried and proven mechanism to cope with any sudden emergency. Unfortunately, last week's three-hour exercise wasn't much help in this area. In Putonghua, the words for 'drill' and 'making a show' sound similar: only the last character is pronounced differently. Some critics joke that this is why so many exercises - even some military drills - look so staged. Authorities may think that a mistake during a drill is embarrassing, but a botched response in a real emergency would be far worse.