Titanic on the Yangtze

Oriental Star

There are no deadly icebergs on the Yangtze. But the river can be as treacherous as the capricious Arctic Ocean. At around 21:30 on Jun 1, the Oriental Star, a triple deck Yangtze River cruise ship, reached its tragic turn of fate in the middle of a section of the river that was barely 750 meters wide. Amid what was supposed to be an extreme weather event which may have involved a violent tornado, the huge ship, with 456 passengers on board, was instantaneously overturned. When people around the country woke up to the shocking news the next day, what they could see was the ominous sight of a completely belly up ship floating on the river, like the body of a dead whale.

A high profile rescue effort not unlike the one surrounding the sunken Korean ferry MV Sewol quickly ensued. Up to this moment, after 9 days of intense search, 8 passengers remain missing. The death toll on the other hand has reached 434. Only 14 have been successfully rescued.

Much can be said about navigational safety, crew judgment and the execution of the rescue mission. But the one thing unique that emerged from this disasters is the confirmation that disaster communication in this country has thoroughly morphed into a kind of grand “mood management” exercise which involves state control as well as the negotiation within the society itself. The fundamental questions that are being asked by those watching the unfolding of the tragedy are not “what happened” and “why did it happen”, but “how should people feel about it” and “when is the right time to feel about what.” You see debates about whether it is right to be skeptical about government conclusions of the accident, or whether it is appropriate to feel proud of the country when so many people are still under water. You also see strong reactions to the authority’s attempt to downplay the sorrow of the victims’ relatives, and the official media’s overwhelming emphasis on the greatness of the state rescue efforts. Deep down, people seem to believe that how their countrymen FEEL about the disaster matters a lot on a substantive level. No wonder that on the second day of the accident, official news outlets called on the public to “suspend their questioning” and “empty out a virtual highway for useful information to pass”, as if in their mind, people’s sentiments could actually block the passage of imaginary informational ambulances that need to somehow “get” to predestined places.

Part of it can be seen as an old tug of war between the state and the society, where the former, out of social stability considerations, often tries to divert public sentiments towards “desirable” directions, sometimes using utterly clumsy methods. For example, in a widely ridiculed report, the Xinhua News Agency’s Hubei provincial branch opened the article with the nauseating cliché that “the river is merciless but the human world is full of love”, referring to the “grandiose national rescue action.” The online world responded to it with merciless mockery. Shrewd observers see patterns in such behavior, identifying two common strategies of state “mood control” efforts: “national muscle flexing”(兴邦) and “empathy shifting.”(移情) The former refers to a framing that highlights national strength and unity, so as to divert attention from more unsettling details of the disaster. The latter is a technique to have the public focusing on sympathy-worthy figures: the victims, their sons, mothers, wives, who bring out the warmth of human tenderness rather than the coldness of facts. None of the two strategies are coercive. They are achieved by allowing journalists and commentators broad freedom to pursue these tracks, while creating subtle hurdles in the way of hard-core truth-finding. Time is also a factor: digging up facts and details can be time consuming, but interviewing rescuers or survivors is not.

The Chinese web society responded to the above tactics with its own increasingly sophisticated antidote: sarcasm and parody. Almost overnight, people’s WeChat walls were filled with funny, spicy spoofs that make fun of what they saw as silly propagandist maneuvers. One viral article named and shamed “the 10 most disgusting news headlines of the Yangtze ship wreckage incident”, while another one pretended to be a journalism textbook instructing journalists about how to write “moving” pieces about disasters happened in China.

That said, the Chinese society’s obsession with the emotional dimensions of a disaster cannot be entirely reduced to a state/society dynamic. There is a genuine collective struggle about how to come to terms with a tragedy, and the debate about “what to feel” represents the bewilderment of a hurt community. For instance, when truly heroic figures appear, is it right to express gratefulness and offer compliment? Weird as it may sound, this was the key discussion around Guan Dong, the scuba diver who saved two passengers from the bottom of the river.

Guan was among the dozens of divers who were sent down into the muddy, torrential river to save the hundreds of passengers trapped in the ship. It was a dangerous task to say the least (remember, two divers died in the rescue mission of the Korean MV Sewol). Weather conditions remained terrible for the days after the incident and visibility under the water was close to nothing. It was in such extreme circumstances that Guan managed to pull out two survivors. To save them, he let them use his own breather. When he emerged again on the surface of the water, his nose could be seen bleeding due to under water pressure.

His feat soon became the focus of media attention and online bickering. While nobody denied the nature of Guan’s heroism, the suffusing sentiment of feel-good celebration made some wonder if it was a bit over the top when hundreds were still dying under the water and their relatives were in a state of tortured despair. This was where a divergence of opinion occurred. One group deemed the celebration premature and should wait until the rescue mission was completed. The other considered it legitimate as a way to boost the morale of rescuers who were enduring extreme pressure. “He could die in his next shift. Should celebrate him when he’s still alive,” said one commentator.

The search for decency in the treatment of their diseased fellow-countrymen seems to have become a recurring theme in disasters like this. In 2010, thousands on thousands of Shanghai residents lined up in the streets to offer flowers to those who lost their lives in the big fire that devoured a residential building in the middle of the city, a defiant act that was deemed “the renaissance of civic spirit” in China. In the Yangtze case, the local residents of Jianli, the town closest to the sinking, again touched people’s hearts and minds through their selfless support to the victims’ relatives and journalists.

One thing that people do repeatedly after such disasters is turning to other countries’ experiences for reference. Japan once again became a source of inspiration: a Weibo post about how Japan responded to and commemorated a similar incident in the 1950s resonated strongly within the Chinese web sphere, even though some felt repelled by that country. You can’t say such resonance within the society is futile. After all, it was sentiments like this that gave birth to China’s first national mourning period for ordinary people, the tens of thousands of victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

The disaster reminded people of the Titanic. They thought of the graceful captain who sank with his ship, after arranging the evacuation of the children, women and the elderly. It became a sort of shared imagination of naval decency which led people to feel angry about the fact that the first one rescued from the Oriental Star was the captain. The resentment was so strong that it warranted a serious explanation: as the ship was overturned in a matter of minutes, there would have been no time for him to act as gracefully as the Titanic captain. And when rescuers saw him in the river, they couldn’t just ignore him.

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