Ground Zero

Tianjininterview

Everything feels like a déjà vu of the 2011 high-speed train wreck.

On Aug 16, four days after the devastating blast in the coastal city of Tianjin, local officials once again turned their daily press conference into a national spectacle, not for its brilliance, but for its jaw-dropping level of confusion. In front of live broadcasting cameras from all over the world, the city’s chief propaganda official could not answer the basic question of “who’s in charge of the emergence response?” In previous occasions, they had also dodged questions in utterly clumsy ways, such as abruptly walking out while journalists watched in disbelief.

The scene is reminiscent of the press conferences after two high-speed trains collided in Wenzhou four years ago. In the aftermath of the accident that killed 40 passengers, the nation was incensed by the arrogant and smart-ass comments from the spokesperson of the Railway Ministry. His notorious comment that “no matter whether you believe it, I believe”, instantaneously became a joke on the internet.

But the two events resemble each other on a deeper level. The chaotic governmental response in the initial few days of the disaster, which dealt another heavy blow to the government’s (remaining) credibility, betrays the fundamental lack of unity in the Chinese officialdom which often tries to project the image of a tightly clenched fist. And in both cases China’s societal forces make use of that precious vacuum to pierce into the territory with determination. The impact of such small breakthroughs, after years of retreat, is yet to be seen.

From the authority’s side, the difficulty with handling the Tianjin blast, as with the Wenzhou train wreck, lies with the structure under which the different administrative jurisdictions are organized. The accident happened in Tianjin, in a GEOGRAPHICAL sense. Administratively speaking, it happened within the bailiwick of the Tianjin Port Group, a state owned entity that falls under the “dual management” of both Tianjin and the Ministry of Transportation. And in that administrative enclave, the different regulatory responsibilities are divided like puzzle pieces among the Tianjin municipality, the Ministry and the Port Group. Fatefully, the permitting schemes relating to the storage of explosive chemicals and the fire department in charge of the port are run by the Port Group under an authorization from the Ministry, not by the municipality.

With the train accident, the Railway Ministry was ultimately responsible for what happened on the rail track, but since it also happened geographically in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, it made the local authority unavoidably involved. The tension between the Railway Ministry and the Wenzhou local government flared up in the initial stage of the rescue work, when the latter disagreed with the plan to remove the car from the track before confirming that nobody was still alive inside it. It put the Railway Ministry, and the entire official communication effort on embarrassing defense mode for five days, until Premier Wen Jiabao came to the rescue.

Official communication after the Tianjin blast was even more disastrous. An evaluation conducted by a think tank affiliated with the People’s Daily accused the six post-blast press conferences as “producing secondary communicational difficulties”, a sophisticated way of saying “they did more damage than good.” Instead of dispersing doubts, officials actually created more of it by acting completely clueless in front of the press. Censor did not help either: “Cutting the broadcasting is only counter-productive in this era of smart phones.”

While some were quick to ridicule the seemingly incompetent bureaucrats, others offered an alternative explanation: these officials, who invariably came from the municipal government, were meticulously following a clear bureaucratic logic. They did not want to second guess the intentions of their colleagues who were actually responsible for the incident. Neither did they want to cover somebody else’s back. Unlike their Wenzhou counterparts who made that tension explicit for everyone to see, the Tianjin authority took a much more passive approach. The theory goes that it is likely they really did not know what was stored inside that warehouse and had no authority to decide who should be in charge of the rescue work.

The apparent lack of mandate and coordination from the government side had a more far-reaching side-effect: its complete loss of the ability to set the agenda. Yes, the self-valorization is still there, but it was quickly muted by waves of to-the-point questions. The aftermath of the blast saw the return of the 24-hour news cycles that the Chinese society had not seen for a while. They were propelled by social media platforms such as Weibo, which fed new raw materials into public attention on a real time basis. Yet it was ultimately the more market oriented media outlets that had been driving the evolution of the discussion and the news agenda. After the initial shock by the magnitude of the explosion, it was the media that quickly drew the public’s attention toward the massive loss endured by the firemen who first responded to the accident. Southern Weekly’s decisive Aug 13 exclusive interview with a survived fireman, who told the newspaper on record that they were not informed of the hydro-reactive nature of the chemicals in the warehouse, set the tone for an intensive round of public questioning of the authority’s liability. The Paper rode on that tide and interviewed the fire department’s spokesperson at the central government level, who incidentally revealed the fact that those first-responding firemen did not fall under the official fire-fighting system, but were “hired hands” employed by the port itself. Caixin immediately followed on that lead by digging out the exact three teams that first showed up at the site and were instantaneously devoured by the explosions. Yet their sacrifice had not been accounted in the official death toll released to the public. The bitter irony of “unequal death” has since then become a commanding mood of the Chinese internet.

The Southern Weekly-Paper-Caixin news relay was impressive, but it was just one thread that the Chinese media were persistently following through. Simultaneously, other bold outlets, including a new Shanghai-based digital platform called Jiemian.com, were trying to uncover possible corruption behind the string of green lights that the warehouse owner (supposedly a private company) managed to obtain before setting up a deadly time bomb in the vicinity of a densely populated area. Clues led journalists to the management and shareholders of the company, including Zhi Feng, its General Manager, who happened to share a very rare surname with a former vice mayor of Tianjin. This line of investigation culminated at the end of the Aug 14 press conference where officials had to exit the venue under the bombardment of one single question: “Who is Zhi Feng?”

Four years ago, the train tragedy defined Sina Weibo as the no.1 social media outlet that had the potential to replace traditional market-orientation media as China’s agenda-setter. The Tianjin blast seems to have catalyzed the re-invention of the traditional media. The perfect storm of media inquiry this time excites a veteran observer into saluting his former colleagues: “In the past few days, most of the first-hand media coverage with added value all came from the familiar bloc of Beijing News, Southern Metropolis Daily, Southern Weekly, Caixin and iNewsweek. Despite the increasingly suffocating and difficult environment, you guys are still charging ahead. Stay safe!” It indeed looks like a renaissance for which those news organizations have been saving up. Almost overnight, they unveiled to the world the formidable arsenal they have accumulated: WeChat live broadcasting, 360 degree panorama photography, and HTML5 aggregation of information. All of a sudden, drones seemed to have become a standard piece of equipment in a journalist’s backpack. And the images that they produced within hours of the incident stunned the world. Many of those news organizations probably have become substantially stronger after this battle: viewership of their materials on digital channels exploded, which almost certainly translates into a larger follower-base online.

A widely read blog by a young journalist who ventured into the core area of the explosion epitomizes this “charging ahead” spirit, showing that the “renaissance” likely goes beyond an instrumental level. Without even carrying a bottle of water, he sneaked into ground zero that was sealed off by the police and stayed in the war-zone for a full day to capture first-hand images of the event. These were heartbreaking documentations of the broken Chinese dreams. The most surreal pictures were the debris that was blown out of the apartment buildings: cash, a Teddy bear and a bouquet. “Everyone’s life is like a pottery jar with lots of stuff in it. But it’s too fragile. Shake it, and it’s broken.”

The metaphor is not new, nor is the sentiment. What’s interesting is how naturally a journalist’s eye-witness account of a blast scene turns into a sort of elegy for the vulnerability of middle class life. It is a resonance reinforced by almost every memorable mega-events in recent years, from the 2011 train wreck to the 2012 Beijing flooding to the Shanghai stampede earlier this year. The plight and insecurity of the Chinese urban middle class are part of what have fueled the pointed questioning and fearless investigation of the Chinese media. Just like what a survivor wrote after escaping from his expensive Vanke apartment building hundreds of meters away from the epicenter: “This high-end neighborhood is only two-hours of driving away from the Tiananmen Square. It’s full of foreigners and multinational corporate executives. Yet only a few banging noises rendered it an empty war zone. Who can imagine that nearby this ‘little Europe’ something equivalent to a tactic nuclear weapon has been installed?”

The familiar motif prompted an influential Weibo commentator to pull out a four-year-old post written at the wake of the train accident on what he termed “corruption terrorism”:

“At the early stage of corruption terrorism, the middle class does not have to worry too much. You are not the ones who work at coal mines or production lines. But when it further exacerbates, most of the population can’t stay out of it, as you cannot avoid taking a train, driving a car or going across a bridge. Your apartment may have a quality problem, so is the food you buy from the supermarket. In its most advanced stage, even the privileged cannot escape from it.”

It seems that after four full years, the country has arrived at the exact same spot. Just as his predecessor did after the Wenzhou train collision, Premier Li Keqiang’s belated arrival at the blast site brought certain order to the post-disaster disorientation. And one of the first things he had to say publicly was the commitment to equal treatment of firemen who lost their lives in the mission, a direct response to an item high on the media agenda.

Some were pessimistic. To them, there is little sign that the iron curtain shielding the corrupt politician-business bond, which is probably the real culprit of the explosion in the first place, is letting loose even a little bit, despite “almost half of Beijing’s best journalists concentrating their efforts on Tianjin.” But for other observers, the mushroom cloud over Tianjin might have changed something permanently: “After Tianjin, the Chinese public’s NYMBY (“not in my backyard”) protests against industrial facilities will almost certainly become unstoppable.” Be it a legacy or a spell, this sounds like the most plausible post-Tianjin scenario that the country needs to face. We may still be circling around our Ground Zero, but something is definitely growing out of it. At the moment, we can’t tell if it’s going to be beautiful or ugly.

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