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:
— 道义、正义、仗义、民主之间 (@nzxws) August 15, 2015
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:
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:
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:
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].
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.
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.
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.