Chinese Premier Li Keqiang reviews the photos of firefighters who died in the Tianjin port explosion on August 12, 2015. Photo: Xinhua.

When Heroes Are Victims

In the rush to honor the sacrifices of Tianjin firefighters, China seems unwilling to ask why they had to die in the first place.

As he toured the site of the Tianjin port explosion on Sunday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang became the latest in a long line of officials to praise the heroism of Tianjin firefighters, calling them Tianjin’s “guardian angels.” In an impromptu interview with a Hong Kong television network, Li further pledged to compensate the families of firefighter contract workers alongside the families of city firefighters killed in the blast.

Li’s remarks follow the general mood in Chinese social and state media, where the stories of the firefighters have taken center stage. Indeed, they bore the brunt of the explosion at the port storage facility owned by Rui Hai International Logistics, with nearly 40 firefighters killed and dozens more still unaccounted for. In the days since, firefighters have remained on the front lines of the disaster, working to put out fires in Binhai district and prevent new dangers from arising.

Once the names, photos, and alleged chat messages from the firefighters lost on the evening of August 12 began to trickle out to the public, Chinese social media soon filled with tributes to their courage. The other victims of the blast remain largely faceless, but the firefighters became national heroes overnight. In this, state media played a guiding role, but social media was a willing participant.

Besides solemn tributes, Chinese social media also turned to black humor to salute the firefighters. One popular video in Tianjin suggested that the city should’ve sent chengguan, China’s much-maligned city management police, to fight the blaze instead. In other posts, Chinese girls darkly suggested that their ex-boyfriends should’ve been sent to die in place of the young firefighters.

Not every media outlet embraced the narrative of Tianjin firefighters’ “noble sacrifice.” In an interview with the Chinese newsmagazine Caijing, which was widely spread on Chinese social media before being censored, a firefighter said that his crew was not told about the presence of dangerous chemicals at the site. Other firefighters have since reiterated this claim in anonymous interviews, but Chinese media outlets have shied away from the story. Perhaps this is because, as David Bandurski argues for the China Media Project, Chinese media have been instructed not to reflect on the tragedy:

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).

At a time when asking questions is discouraged, learning why the firefighters were unprepared for the situation remains vital. It is every bit as important as asking why explosive goods were illegally stored blocks away from downtown apartments. (Don’t expect local officials to answer that question anytime soon, either.) Tianjiners working in logistics have told me that the Tianjin Port Group would have requested a goods manifest and informed firefighters before sending firefighters in to fight the initial blaze. Assuming these claims are accurate, Rui Hai lied about the chemicals being stored, or Tianjin Port Group withheld information, or there was some combination thereof.

For their part, state media seems inclined to blame the company, with People’s Daily recently going so far as to accuse Rui Hai of smuggling. The company remains a cipher for Western media, but Chinese authorities have slowly begun unpacking the black box that is Rui Hai International Logistics. Even so, they perpetuate the narrative that the deaths in Tianjin port were senseless, the firefighters young and heroic. Although arrests are beginning, no one in Chinese media has yet suggested that Rui Hai, through negligence, killed the first responders.

The public may have embraced the firefighters as heroes, but their families are more inclined to see them as victims. As the South China Morning Post reports, of the 85 firefighters still missing, 72 were employed by the Tianjin Port Group. Many of them were part-time private contractors. On the same day that Li Keqiang visited the blast site, families of the missing firefighters protested at the Binhai district government, demanding accountability. Rather than offering answers, officials echoed Premier Li in promising to recognize the contractors as heroes alongside the city firefighters.

The message to the families was simple, and for those who recall the Party’s deification of the victims of the Wenchuan earthquake and Wenzhou train crash, familiar: we can make your loved ones saints, but don’t ask us for justice.