They say “any publicity is good publicity”, but in China, it’s more like “any publicity is bad publicity”.
Last night, Tianjin, a city of 15 million people in northern China, heard an explosion and saw video footage of something that looked like an outtake from an end-of-the-world movie. Fireballs from the blast injured hundreds and killed dozens, and the death toll is still rising.
I first heard about it, not through any news alerts, but through Wechat Moments, as everyone asked: “What on earth happened in Tianjin?”
More than 12 hours later, there is still no answer to that.
Media outlets that are trying to get to the bottom of it are not having much luck either. A CNN correspondent in Tianjin was interrupted during a live TV report near a hospital close to the explosions and told to stop filming.
But it’s not just foreign media that are having a hard time finding out what happened. As is common during disasters on the mainland, social media remains under tight control when it comes to sharing information.
On Sina Weibo, some users have complained that their posts about the blasts have been deleted, and the number of searchable posts on the disaster has fluctuated, in a sign that authorities are manipulating or placing limits on the number of posts.
Chinese journalists were also blocked. One reporter who took photos inside a hospital was threatened by hospital security guards and forced to delete the images. A photo journalist from Beijing News was surrounded by seven policemen to ensure he deleted photos. “Delete them or we’ll cuff you,” they are reported as saying.
Beijing News is a best-selling newspaper in Tianjin’s neighbouring city. Which begs the question, what are the local media outlets doing at this point?
Tianjin TV, the official channel in Tianjin municipality, has made it clear that there has only been one kind of explosion: an explosion of drama. Sticking to its fixed schedule, Tianjin TV has been running cartoon shows and Korean dramas this morning in an attempt to pretend there is nothing wrong in the city.
This reminded me of something that happened in Qingdao, another city in northern China, two years ago.
There was an oil pipeline explosion in Qingdao in November 2013 and the only coverage by Qiangdao newspapers was to describe the central government’s responses to the incident and the bravery during rescue.
For several years, media organisations on the mainland would only report negative coverage if it affected a different province or city, so the government later banned this so-called “cross-regional reporting”.
It always seems like censorship is the government’s top priority, rather than seeking solutions or learning from past lessons.
Both the Qingdao explosion in 2013 and yesterday’s Tianjin explosion happened in industrial areas which are near residential areas. The close proximity of residential buildings to industrial areas is one of the reasons that both incidents resulted in such a high number of causalities.
“Are they that confident, or are human lives that worthless?” a friend of mine said about the fact that residential buildings are less than one kilometre from the blast site in Tianjin.
Chinese President Xi Jinping called for “all-out efforts” to rescue those injured and minimise casualties from the explosions.
But all-out efforts are not enough, we need to learn from the disasters, and media censorship is certainly not the way.