by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: 牛弹琴

WE MAY NOTE with dark irony the series of reactions to the Tianjin explosion across the media landscape both inside and outside of China. To begin with, the explosion had the makings of public spectacle, what with the numerous videos which were taken at the time of the explosion and which were circulated across social media. But why the Tianjin explosions in particular?

The Tianjin explosions were the fifth chemical explosion in 4 months. On April 6th, PX chemical explosion occurred in Fujian, on April 21st, an chemical explosion occurred at Jiangsu Nanjing on April 25th, an explosion occurred at Jiangxi Taipu on May 5th, an explosion occurred and Shandong Chemical on July 26th, and an explosion occurred at the Tianjin Tangku Developmental area on August 12th. And, indeed, for a brief period of time the world was enraptured. Not only was China thrown into a state of shock with the explosion, along with the landslide which occurred in Shaanxi that day, but for awhile western media took to live updating the situation—even with crowdsourced updates appearing on Reddit. Actually, if the Tianjin explosions have been particularly disastrous, such accidents have taken place in the past but without much in the way of media attention.

We can point to the means by which international media has at times not entirely the government response to the disaster in regards to a failure to understand the Chinese Internet ecology and how Chinese censorship functions. But the Tianjin explosion raises large questions for China going forward, not only in regards to industrial development, safety, but also social media culture, censorship, and government handling of the disaster. And it would seem events have gotten hand, beyond the scale of what the government had hoped it could handle. This was with the declaration of an evacuation for within three kilometers of the blast zone with the discovery of sodium cyanide, which could be fatal to humans. It now transpires that the amount of sodium cyanide stored on site was seven hundred tons, seventy times the permitted amount.

Internet Censorship and Ambiguities About the Incident

TO BEGIN WITH, what are the bare facts about the Tianjin explosion to date? The bare facts as circulated in Chinese media and presented to Chinese media have pointed to over 110 dead, close to one hundred missing, mostly firefighters, and over seven hundred injured. Rumors still swirl as to whether the number killed is oddly low, given the size of the explosion. Particularly on the day of the explosion there were many rumors on Chinese social media that the amount of firemen killed was falsely low, in consideration of accounts that the number of firemen who returned after venturing out into the blaze was much lower than reported. There remain those who claim that the death toll is significantly higher than what the government claims, including claims that the death toll is over one thousand. Attention was also called to whether air was contaminated in Tianjin as a result of the explosion and though this was denied initially, rumors of cyanide being released into the air appeared early on, before being erased.

If rumors circulating on main Chinese social platform Weibo were quickly deleted by the government, sometimes within fifteen minutes of posting, most international commentators have failed to understand why this was so because this was understood within the framework of “free speech” versus “censorship.” Actually, criticisms of the government are permitted on Weibo, but what is not allowed is the circulating of false stories or rumors. What is cracked down is when criticism circulates out of hand, with posts being removed after being shared enough on social media.

Obviously, at many points, the restriction of spreading false stories or rumors becomes a way of suppressing information, but the realities of the Chinese Internet ecology is hardly so simple. We might broadly point towards the means by which the Chinese government is hardly so stupid as to clamp down on free expression with the notion in mind that it can totally prevent the spread of information. Rather, the expression of dissent is allowed within a certain extent in order to prevent dissent building up into anything more significant. The case of the cyanide release was a case, however, in which rumor turned out to be fact and the government was suppressing this information for fear of widespread panic.

Likewise, if international media’s attempting to take pictures of victims in hospitals and CNN’s attempt to take a picture of a dead firefighter prompted a backlash from Chinese themselves both within Tianjin on site and across the country, the apparent miscomprehension of western media was such that this was first also understood within Chinese restrictions on media freedom. This prompted much backlash from indignant western commentators on the apparent Chinese barbarity of lack of respect for freedom of press—never mind the issue at hand was whether it was appropriate for media to force their way in to take pictures at a disaster zone. It is, however, also true that censorship has taken place with foreign reporters on-site being threatened or shut out.

What is suspicious above all else, though, is that it remains still unknown what exactly caused the explosion to date, except that it was a chemical explosion. This may be the questionable aspect of the explosion to date. Why has no coherent explanation emerged to date as to the explosion’s cause? It does appear that restrictions are being placed upon speculation as to the cause of the explosion. And it does appear curious that Chinese government leaders have not come forth with clearer explanations of what exactly went wrong.

Implications for China’s Developmentalist State?

APART FROM that there have also been conspiracy theories circulating that the explosion was caused by a terrorist attack, possibly to do with China’s upcoming celebration of the 70th anniversary of victory in the Sino-Japanese War, the probable reason for the Chinese government’s censoring of information about the cause of the Tianjin disaster is because of the implications it would raise for China’s developmentalist state. The Tianjin disaster probably was an accident of some sort, but with current slow economic growth and market volatility, what the Tianjin disaster raises is the question by which China has sacrificed industrial safety and environmental health in pursuit of economic growth at all costs—and this the government does not want to acknowledge.

If the Tianjin disaster is one of a series of disasters in recent months, although they maybe not as at large a scale, what the Tianjin disaster raises is broader question of industrial safety in China. Given the general lack of adequate attention paid to infrastructure maintenance and industrial safety in countries pursuing the East Asian developmental model, this being for the sake of cutting costs which go to maintaining industrial safety, probably we can say much the same for China. So much for China’s unprecedented economic growth without end or its claim to represent something new in the world economically, if what happens is disasters like Tianjin.

1368671206569_1368671206569_rXi Jinping in Tianjin in May. Photo credit:

Likewise, if the government was very slow to acknowledge the initial explosions. Several hours passed between the first explosions at 11:30 PM on the 12th and officials only responding at 3:52 AM. Officials were also slow to call for safety measures to be taken in the event of chemicals being released into the air. This was only compounded when it turned out that cyanide had, in fact, been released into the air and that what had previous been suppressed rumor was now fact. This would, of course, point to severe government mishandling of the crisis—and the last thing the Chinese government would want is the reactions to the Tianjin disaster to lead to is increased dissent against government policy, economic or otherwise. What, then, will the actions of the Chinese government be going forward?

However, if the disaster continues to unfold in its drama of human tragedy, we will see as to what the ultimate effects of the Tianjin explosion are—not only on the residents of Tianjin directly affected by the explosion, but on all residents of China.

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