An image of candles in the shape of a heart was shared by the official China Central Television to commemorate the earthquake in Lushan in 2013.

The Politics of Senseless Tragedy

Five days after a devastating explosion ripped through the Binhai New Area port outside the northern Chinese city of Tianjin, press control authorities are still trying to pick up the pieces. Directing and restricting coverage of a disaster of this magnitude is certainly no easy task, least of all in the age of the mobile internet. Propaganda officials in China will certainly try, however. And to varying degrees, they will succeed.

But there is good news: This time around, we can observe that more Chinese media are attempting to push back against controls — a significant contrast to the case of the Yangtze River cruise ship tragedy back in June.

There are a number of reasons why Tianjin should be different. First and foremost, is sheer scale and destructive force. The explosions occurred in a relatively populated area, leaving a wide footprint of destruction that has proven difficult to contain physically. The explosions, felt as far away as Beijing, were experienced by tens of millions, witnessed by many hundreds of thousands, and documented by at least tens of thousands.

An image of the fireball from possibly the second Tianjin explosion on August 12, 2015, posted to Sina Weibo.

Almost instantly, photos, videos and eyewitness accounts were going up on Sina Weibo and other Chinese social media. Shortly after midnight on August 13, roughly 30 minutes after the devastating second explosion, I saw images on Twitter and Facebook, many of which were being sourced from Chinese sites. By around 2:30AM on August 13, there were 22 million users watching the #tianjinexplosion feed on Weibo, and those numbers kept climbing by the millions. By 3AM, just 30 minutes later, there were 32.2 million users on the feed.

It was also clear very quickly from social media that there would be substantial injuries and casualties from the explosions. Some of the images and videos posted early on to Weibo were graphic, apparently showing bodies in nearby residential areas.

An image of injured Tianjin residents posted to Sina Weibo and rapidly shared on August 12 and 13.

There were images of residents being shuttled off to hospitals by friends and family, or stumbling through the streets in a daze. The disaster was instantly raw and immediate, with audiences scaling quickly into the tens of millions.

As propaganda officials and their subordinates were likely being roused, meanwhile, the Tianjin explosions were already major international news. “Headlines here,” wrote one American friend on Facebook in response to a post I made at 2:25AM Beijing time.

It’s hard to imagine any government, regardless how robust its mechanisms of control, being fully capable of containing or managing this story to its satisfaction. For Chinese propaganda officials, the objective on day one, August 13, would have been to slow the momentum of non-official information and speculation. And one of the first levers was the propaganda release instructing traditional media and websites to stick to the official narratives as presented by trusted state media outlets, chiefly Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television.

Use only copy from Xinhua and authoritative departments and media. Websites cannot privately gather information on the accident, and when publishing news cannot add individual interpretation without authorisation. Do not make live broadcasts.

Just to cover the broad strokes, these directives were combined with efforts to rein in information sharing on domestic social media sites. As my colleague Professor Fu King-wa has noted, censorship rates on Weibo were up ten-fold in the aftermath of the Tianjin explosions, according to our Weiboscope data at the University of Hong Kong. And of course the Cyberspace Administration of China, the new super-agency dealing with information and the internet, moved quickly to expunge accounts spreading “rumours” about events in Tianjin, noting that a few “’big Vs’, or star bloggers, had also posted ‘irresponsible’ comments about the blast.”

We’ll have more coverage at CMP in coming days of how Chinese media attempted, with qualified success (decent reports were in many cases short-lived), to push the envelope on Tianjin coverage. There are plenty of publications that deserve singling out, and the upshot is that we should feel somewhat encouraged — very cautiously optimistic — that Chinese media are still capable and professionally hungry, despite serious limitations in the past few years (see this great recent feature on the “winter” of investigative reporting by Hong Kong’s brand new publication, The Initium).

But let’s talk for now about what the public opinion control objectives of Chinese officials will be as we approach the one-week anniversary of the Tianjin explosions.

The primary objective of China’s leadership can be summed up in a single phrase that will most probably make its way (or already has) into propaganda directives: “Do not do reports of a reflective nature” (不做反思性报道). “Reflecting back,” or fansi, refers to any reporting of a probing or profound nature — anything, essentially, that asks the deeper questions of who, why and how (leaving us with a hobbled half of the basic 5Ws-1H of journalism 101).

Who are the people behind the Ruihai International Logistics, the firm whose hazardous materials depot was the site of the explosion? Who in the leadership might they be connected to? Why was the storage depot allowed so close to high-density residential areas?

Those who haven’t yet seen it might also want to view the footage online taken from the press conference in Tianjin, in which Chinese journalists had tough questions for local officials. The questions were so pointed, and the officials so hopelessly out of their element, that the live broadcast was cut short by China Central Television. These reporters were already beginning to fansi.

A live broadcast on CCTV13 of an official press conference in Tianjin is cut short by the network as it descends into unmanageable chaos.

Fansi is what happens when human beings who feel a shared misfortune — those, for example, placing virtual candles on social media to honour victims in Tianjin — begin to grope for sense. For China’s leaders, making sense of the senseless is a disruptive and dangerous act, because it nudges the mythically infallible foundations of legitimacy and power.

This is why, in the case of disaster after disaster, propaganda officials have sought to emphasise the natural and inevitable nature of misfortune. In the aftermath of the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake, it became clear that shoddy school construction in the area of the quake had led to the death of thousands of children. Chinese media were ordered explicitly to avoid this sensitive topic, and the Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper went out of its way to emphasise solidarity in the face of senseless tragedy, saying that it was “confident that the people of China will be victorious against this major natural disaster.”

There is nothing the least bit natural about the disaster in Tianjin. But the official Global Times has been quick to shame and demonise the pursuit of sense. In an editorial called, “Rein in Carping Queries in Wake of Blast,” the newspaper’s online English site suggested it was time for “constructiveness,” not questions:

Some of the fires are still smouldering. Treating the wounded should be the priority. . . . At this point, is it really good timing to constantly question the rescuers?
This is the time when the media should provide as many facts to the public as possible. These messages should be based on information offered by the official authorities. . . .
In a world in which things can always be hushed up, always be hidden, it is courageous for people to toss out questions.
But in a disaster that is in the media spotlight, those indiscriminate queries should be restrained. More time is needed for the rescue effort.

It is never the right or the proper time, according to official China, to seek the sense of tragedy. The focus, during the earliest days, must be on urgent rescue. And once the rubble is cleared away? Officials will say now is the time to move on. Why dwell on unpleasantries?

Expect to see many candles of mourning this week, shared across social media in China — perhaps even burning darkly on the front pages of a few commercial newspapers. But the time will have passed to ask the harder questions. Those will be expunged as quickly as they appear.

Mourn this tragedy, the Chinese people will be told by their solemn leaders. But do not try to make sense of it.