Tianjin Lives Up to ‘City Without News’ Nickname After Deadly Blasts

By Oiwan Lam 19 August 2015

HONG KONG — As deadly explosions rocked Tianjin, China, and firefighters were risking their lives last week, local satellite TV was showing cartoons and Korean dramas. The enormous blasts at a warehouse storing hazardous chemicals killed at least 114 people and captured the world’s attention, but the lack of coverage at home led netizens to crown Tianjin “a city without news.”

It’s not the first time that Tianjin has been labeled as such. The term was used to describe the city by a China Youth Daily reporter in a feature story about the news reports of a fire in a shopping mall in Ji county back in June 2012. Local authorities restricted media from reporting on the fire. Rumors online claimed a staggering 375 people had died at the time, while officials said the death toll stood at 10.

When the shocking explosions took place last week, local media in Tianjin reacted similarly. Twitter user @nzxws highlighted the situation:

“It was shocking to see that after the disaster, Tianjin satellite TV was still showing Korean dramas, and netizens criticized [the fact] that ‘the whole world was watching Tianjin while Tianjin was watching Korean dramas.’ The whole world was reading news about Tianjin, but the city has become ‘a city without news.’”

To rebuke the label, Tianjin Daily published a 10-page spread on the blasts, but instead of taking a critical stance on the man-made tragedy, thank you messages to leaders, firefighters, doctors and nurses dominated the coverage. Experienced reporter Jia Jia expressed frustration on Facebook about such praises that buried the truth:

“Twenty hours after the explosion, we still didn’t know what has caused the blasts,” he said. “[Instead of revealing the truth], local authorities vowed to punish people who spread rumors. Isn’t this situation common? Isn’t this the same attitude after all disasters? This group of people we keep praising are good for nothing when it comes to rescuing people but firm when arresting people. Even if you hide in a corner when writing a tweet, they know it is you. While what exactly was stored in Ruihai Logistics’ warehouse, they couldn’t divulge in two days. Do you think this is possible?”

On August 14, two days after the explosions, local authorities revealed that at least 700 tons of highly toxic sodium cyanide was stored at the warehouse, an amount 70 times the legal limit. The blast leaked the chemical into the environment.

‘Still Waiting for a Sincere Apology’

News about the blasts spread rapidly in China. In a 24-hour period between August 14 and 15, there were 269,512 messages about the explosions on the Chinese internet, according to new media analyst Hua Hongbing. Among the messages, 246,895 were messages on popular social media website Weibo, 2,980 were breaking news reports, 15,891 were blog or forum posts, and 3,764 were posts on messaging app WeChat.

Instead of clarifying the situation, authorities stopped journalists from collecting eyewitness reports in hospitals and near port areas. Government censors shut down more than 50 websites and deleted social media messages, purportedly to stop rumors from spreading.

One of the most deleted posts is an interview with a firefighter who said that they were not told there were toxic chemicals at the scene that would react dangerously with water. Fears are swirling that the sodium cyanide could react with rain to produce poisonous hydrogen cyanide gas.

Most of the censored messages retrieved from “Free Weibo”, a project that saves copies of censored Weibo messages, were in fact not rumors but critical comments based on official news sources.

“As a media worker who was off from his night shift, I left the office feeling painful over the innocent deaths, those who lost all their property and belongings, and the government’s defensive statement, cover-up and positive reporting full of praises,” said one Weibo user. “One hundred and four lives were lost in the port. The property loss was tremendous and the disaster relief cost will be huge. We are still waiting for a sincere apology.”

A version of this article originally appeared on Global Voices Online