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Tianjin Lives Up to Its ‘City Without News’ Nickname After Deadly Blasts

The warehouse where the blasts originated was storing 700 tonnes of sodium cyanide, 70 times the legal limit. Image from  Xinhua via HKPF.

The warehouse where the blasts originated was storing 700 tonnes of sodium cyanide, 70 times the legal limit. Image from Xinhua via HKPF.

As deadly explosions rocked Tianjin, China, and firefighters were risking their lives last week, local satellite TV was showing cartoons and Korean dramas. The enormous blasts at a warehouse storing hazardous chemicals killed at least 114 people and captured the world's attention, but the lack of coverage at home led netizens to crown Tianjin “a city without news.”

It's not the first time that Tianjin has been labeled as such. The term was used to describe the city by a China Youth Daily reporter in a feature story about the news reports of a fire in a shopping mall in Ji county back in June 2012. Local authorities restricted media from reporting on the fire. Rumors online claimed a staggering 375 people had died at the time, while officials said the death toll stood at 10.

When the shocking explosions took place last week, local media in Tianjin reacted similarly. Twitter user @nzxws highlighted the situation:

It was shocking to see that after the disaster, Tianjin satellite TV was still showing Korean dramas, and netizens criticized that “the whole world was watching Tianjin while Tianjin was watching Korean dramas.” The whole world was reading news about Tianjin, but the city has become “a city without news.”

To rebuke the label, Tianjin Daily published a 10-page spread on the blasts, but instead of taking a critical stance on the man-made tragedy, thank you messages to leaders, firefighters, doctors and nurses dominated the coverage. Experienced reporter Jia Jia expressed frustration on Facebook about such praises that buried the truth:

在天津爆炸二十個小時後,我們都不知道到底是什麼東西爆炸的時候,當地官方居然說要嚴懲造謠者。呵呵,不覺得眼熟嗎?是不是每次災難後都是這種表態?這就是我們天天在歌頌的那批人啊——救人一無是處,抓人毫不含糊。你躲在不知道什麼角落的鬼地方發個帖子,分分鐘就能知道是你幹的。但是瑞海公司的倉庫裏到底放了些什麼東西,兩天了還不知道。你覺得這個可能嗎?
這次天津爆炸事件中,民居的玻璃傷了很多人,可是如果建築商使用合乎安全規範的安全玻璃,完全可以避免這樣的受傷。又比如,如果不讓第一批次進入火場的消防員用水的話,可能會避免更多的傷亡(見南方週末的報道),但是很遺憾,每次發生這樣的人禍,總是會得到最壞的結果,在每一個環節都會掉鏈子。

Twenty hours after the explosion, we still didn't know what has caused the blasts. [Instead of revealing the truth], local authorities vowed to punish people who spread rumors. Isn't this situation common? Isn't this the same attitude after all disasters? This group of people we keep praising are good for nothing when it comes to rescuing people but firm when arresting people. Even if you hide in a corner when writing a tweet, they know it is you. While what exactly was stored in Ruihai Logistics’ warehouse, they couldn't tell in two days. Do you think this is possible?

Many residents were injured by windows that were blown out during the Tianjin explosions. If the construction companies use safe, up-to-standards glass, a lot fewer people would have been hurt. If the first group of firefighters had not used water to put out the fire, the casualties would not be as serious (see Southern Weekend's report). Every time when a man-made disaster happens, the worst scenario happens. The ball is dropped in every respect.

On August 14, two days after the explosions, local authorities revealed that at least 700 tons of highly toxic sodium cyanide was stored at the warehouse, an amount 70 times the legal limit. The blast leaked the chemical into the environment.

Social media user Jia Jia was furious when he saw that instead of questioning the authorities, local Tianjin media praised the leaders and rescue workers:

今天天津日報用了十個版證明“天津並不是一個沒有新聞的城市”,可是,這十個版是什麼?全是感動,沒有別的。感謝政府指揮,感謝消防官兵,感謝醫院護士。誠然,他們的付出是該感謝,可是,他們本來沒有必要這樣付出的,他們可以不用去啊。感動你妹,為什麼每次都要把喪事當成喜事來辦?

Today, Tianjin Daily used 10 pages to prove that “Tianjin is not a city without news.” What was reported in those 10 pages? All are touchy-feely expressions of thanks. Thankful for the government's supervision in relief work. Thankful for the firefighters, thankful for the nurses in the hospital. Of course, we should thank people who help out in disaster relief. But they didn't have to be in this position in the first place. Moving bullshit. Why do you have to turn grief into praise?

‘Still waiting for a sincere apology’

News about the blasts spread rapidly in China. In a 24-hour period between August 14 and 15, there were 269,512 messages about the explosions on the Chinese Internet according to new media analyst Hua Hongbing. Among the messages, 246,895 were messages on popular social media website Weibo, 2,980 were breaking news reports, 15,891 were blog or forum posts, and 3,764 were posts on messaging app WeChat.

An American named Daniel Van Duran, who was living a few kilometers away from the explosions, captured the frightening moment on film:

Instead of clarifying the situation, authorities stopped journalists from collecting eyewitness reports in hospitals and near port areas. Government censors shut down more than 50 websites and deleted social media messages, claiming to stop rumors from spreading.

One of the most deleted posts is an interview with a firefighter who said that they were not told that there were toxic chemicals at the scene that would react dangerously with water. Fears are swirling that the sodium cyanide could react with rain to produce poisonous hydrogen cyanide gas.

In fact, most of the censored messages retrieved from “Free Weibo”, a project that saves copies of censored Weibo messages, were not rumors but critical comments based on official news sources. Below are some examples of censored messages:

作为一个刚刚值完夜班的媒体人,带着双重的伤痛下班,一是无辜死难同胞带来的内心伤痛和一些农民工财产尽失、求告无门的呻吟,二是政府无力的辩解、遮掩和看客丧事变成喜事的无良歌颂。天津港,104条生命,天文数字一般的财产损失,高昂的救援成本,等待着一声真挚的忏悔和道歉。竟连安倍也不如。

As a media worker who was off from his night shift, I left the office feeling painful over the innocent deaths, those who lost all their property and belongings, and the government's defensive statement, cover-up and positive reporting full of praises. One hundred and four lives were lost in the port. The property loss was tremendous and the disaster relief cost will be huge. We are still waiting for a sincere apology. [The authorities] are worse than Abe Shinzo [prime minister of Japan who refused to apologize for WWII war crimes].

Residents from Wanke Harbour City demanded the government to buy back their apartments and compensate for their loss after the explosions. Image from Facebook based Line Post.

Residents from Wanke Harbour City demanded the government buy back their apartments and compensate them for their loss after the explosions. Image from Facebook-based Line Post.

天津港的万科海港城,就是中产阶级的隐喻:辛苦赚钱买房,努力做个良民。即使危险品仓库建在区区六百米之外,当初不过稍作反抗就习以为常。然后忽然一场爆炸,多年血汗化为灰烬……终于有天你会明白,中产也好,贫民也罢,这国普通人有关生活的全部憧憬,仅仅建立在概率之上。

What happened to [the residents] of Wanke Harbor city near Tianjin port can be seen as a metaphor for the fate of the middle class: They work hard to buy property and be a good and obedient citizen. The hazardous chemicals warehouse was just 600 meters away, and though they spoke out against the project back then, they got used to its existence. Then came the explosions and all their sweet homes were turned to ash… You will eventually understand that not matter if you are middle class or lower class, in this country ordinary people's dreams are built upon probability and luck.

截止目前,天津爆炸事件原因已渐近明晰答案:人祸。希望政府对这次人为的重大事故追责到底,公开透明,还原真相。例如:把受灾民众和消防官兵的死伤数据诚实地公示于社会,把相关涉案责任者送上法庭。中纪委介入很必要。灾难不可怕,可怕的是:将依法追责终结于表彰庆功,为灾难重演搭台。请尊重生命!

The cause of the Tianjin explosion is becoming clear: a man-made disaster. I wish the government would find out who should be held accountable for the incident in an open and transparent manner. Dig up the truth — announce the number of deaths and injured and prosecute those who violated the law. The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection would be involved. A disaster is not horrible, what's horrible is covering up who is responsible and who should be held accountable with praise. Please respect life.

针对天津港特大爆炸事故,市委书记、市长、安监局长,应当一概免职。刚才在视频上看到天津安监局副局长在新闻发布会上,那么淡定地开发布会,我真服了。相关职责部门一把手都当立刻予以免职,务必请专案组进入调查。如请当地职能部门调查,还靠谱嘛?没有第三方、第四方介入调查,民众和消防员白死了!

The Tianjin party secretary, city mayor and the head of security inspection bureau should be fired. The deputy of the Tianjin security inspection bureau attended the press conference, he was so calm. The chief of all related government departments should step down and should be investigated [for negligence and corruption]. The investigation should not be handled by local authorities. Without the involvement of the third and fourth parties, innocent people and firefighters would die in vain.

Tianjin is not the only city in China that censors news and critical opinions. The “city without news” is just a microcosm of a country that sees positive reporting as a means to political stability.

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