Ground Zero


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, 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.

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.