BEIJING — Trust nothing.
That’s pretty much the mood in Tianjin almost five days after a massive, chemical-fueled explosion rocked the city, turning swathes of the port into an apocalyptic hellscape, and killing more than 100 people, including scores of firefighters sent to fight the flames.
From the outset, the government has insisted that everything is under control, that the levels of toxic chemicals in the air and water are normal—despite the fact that there were hundreds of tons of highly toxic sodium cyanide on site.
On Sunday, China’s premier, Li Keqiang, showed up to tour the scene, posing for pictures without a mask of any sort, and calling for “transparency” in the investigation.
But the visit, and the call, came rather late. And few, it seems, are buying it.
Chinese authorities are now facing growing public furor over their handling of the whole affair, as relatives of the missing, Chinese journalists, and the public-at-large raise questions about what, exactly, happened and who should be held to account.
As with previous disasters—from the tainted milk scandal, to the Sichuan earthquake, to the Wenzhou train crash, to the Yangtze ferry sinking—the official response has been marked by an all-out effort to control the story, whether by obstructing the press, pulling unflattering reporting from the Web, or censoring social media.
Both local and foreign journalists have been thwarted by officials at the scene. When Chinese journalists asked tough questions at a press conference, state television cut away. And those who track China’s online censorship efforts have documented a spike in deleted posts thanks to Tianjin.
The irony, of course, is that government efforts to “curb rumors” have created perfect conditions for speculation. Indeed, the deficit of trust is such that when the government says “all is well,” many here assume the opposite. Calls for transparency become code — in the minds of many Chinese — for “there’s probably something seriously shady going on.”
“Under Xi Jinping, when he says ‘we will have rule of law,’ they lock up all the lawyers, now it’s ‘we have must have transparency’ right when they are busiest getting this story under wraps,’” said David Bandurski an editor at Hong Kong University’s China Media Project.
People are taking matters into their own hands, whether that means buying masks to protect themselves from potential chemical fallout, or high-tailing it out of Tianjin.
The authorities seem to know they are in trouble.
In the case of the Yangtze ferry sinking, which took place in a relatively isolated area in June, officials were able to quickly get a hold of the story by securing the site and blocking commercial and foreign media (as opposed to state media) from reporting freely.
In Tianjin, a major city in close proximity to the capital, that’s proven tough. There are tens of thousands of potential eyewitnesses and photos and videos started circulating overnight while, as Bandurski put it, “local propaganda officials were still rolling out of bed.”
The state now seems to be playing catch-up, repeatedly emphasizing accountability and openness while people in Tianjin, and netizens around the country, protest the utter absence of both.
In a rather striking bit of commentary, the English-language edition of the usually rah-rah Global Times, called out local officials for “fumbling” post-blast propaganda.
“A single slow reaction can lead to rumors running riot. And in turn, public confidence in the government will continue to fall,” it read.
The piece ultimately put the blame on “officials at the grassroots level” who, they said, “are not good at facing the public voice.”
It’s a careful bit of criticism—strident, but notably narrow, an indictment of local cadres in the public spotlight but not the central government or the disaster response system as a whole.
People’s Daily today pulled out the same theme, pointing to shortcomings while all the while extolling the central leadership’s “clear” and “resolute” attitude and noting that a “thorough investigation and severe punishment are beyond any doubt.”
There will be no coverup, the paper promised, because Xi Jinping’s government is—if you haven’t heard—cracking down on corruption.
“Zhou Yongkang, Xu Caihou, Guo Boxiong, Ling Jihua: These big cases have all been investigated to the last and handled publicly,” the piece read.
“What need would there be to hold back and cover up a safety incident? How could it be possible for government bureaucrats to shield each other?”
With journalists and netizens already on the hunt for ties between the chemical company linked to the explosion and Communist Party officials, we may soon find out.
Liu Liu reported from Beijing.