Chinese Media and the Tianjin Disaster

On the night of August 12, 2015, a series of major explosions swept across the Binhai New Area, a busy port just 40 kilometres east of the northern Chinese city of Tianjin. The explosions occurred less than one kilometre from several high-density residential areas, and damage extended as far as two kilometres from the blast site. It has now been a little over a week since this major sudden-breaking story unfolded. Looking back, how do we assess the performance of domestic Chinese media, which in recent years have suffered under a steadily worsening climate — and have answered other tragedies this year with almost deafening silence?

A Footrace Between Bans and the Facts

As in the case of the high-speed rail crash outside the city of Wenzhou on July 23, 2011, the first information available about the Tianjin explosions came from social media in China. At 11:29PM on August 12, web user “@Ada DouDouDou” (@Ada豆豆豆) posted photographs of fires in Tianjin, along with mobile video, in her WeChat group. This was, as far as we know, the earliest report on social media of events unfolding in Tianjin. The post was made five minutes before the first major explosion, which the China Earthquake Networks Networks Centre would eventually report as having occurred at 11:34PM.

At 11:37PM, users “@Xiao Kim” (@潇Kim) and “@Pang Zhe Long” (@龐哲龍) simultaneously posted videos of explosions in Tianjin. These were the first videos available of the explosions. The video from “@Pang Zhe Long,” just two seconds in length, showed a column of fire rising up into the sky. “Does anyone know what’s up?” one of the posts asked.

1[ABOVE:Early posts to social media of explosions in the Tianjin Port on August 12.]

The photos and videos first shared by these and other mobile users close to the scene in Tianjin became the first-hand materials on which media, both inside and outside China, initially relied. The Paper (澎湃新聞), a largely mobile new media site launched by Shanghai’s Oriental Press Group, was one of the quickest to share videos taken in Tianjin, reporting simply: “A video from the scene of an explosion occurring late at night in Tianjin’s Binhai New Area development zone.”

xiao2[ABOVE:Early coverage of the Tianjin explosions on Chinese social media.]

At 11:49PM, Tencent, one of China’s largest internet portal sites, became the first to provide news in headline fashion: “A mushroom cloud rises from the scene of an explosion in Tianjin, shocks are felt scores of kilometres away.” This was nearly an hour ahead of the official People’s Daily, which sent out short news items at 12:43AM and 1:11AM via its official Weibo account.

Breaking news reports from Chinese media came well in advance of official releases from government agencies. The first post, for example, from “Peaceful Tianjin” (@平安天津), the official Weibo account of the Tianjin Public Security Bureau, did not come until 2:44AM on August 13, almost three hours after Tencent’s initial post. The release from Tianjin police confirmed the basics, saying explosions had occurred at “the container yard of the warehouse of Rui Hai International Logistics.”

the paper
[ABOVE:Early coverage of the Tianjin explosions by The Paper, a site in Shanghai.]

This early detail would quickly become one of the core threads Chinese media would pull with relish, loosening the hem of a complex and revealing story.

We saw a rapid response from Chinese media of all kinds in the immediate wake of the explosions—including websites, newspapers, radio and television. Prominent newspapers and magazines, including The Beijing News, Caixin Media, The Paper, Caijing, Jiemian and China Youth Daily, all dispatched journalists to the scene, as did China Central Television’s News Channel. On August 13, the day immediately after the explosions, morning editions of The Beijing News, Beijing Youth Daily and others carried news of the explosions. Page one of The Beijing News featured a large photograph of the fire-cloud rising above the scene of the explosion.

beijing news
[ABOVE: The Beijing News, a prominent commercial newspaper, runs a large photo of the Tianjin explosions on its front page on August 13, 2015.]

Aside from this front-page coverage, the newspaper included further coverage on page 6.

In sudden-breaking stories in the past, such as the high-speed rail crash in Wenzhou, domestic Chinese media have done strong reporting despite strong and directed media controls. This generally means taking advantage of confusing situations and gaps in the government response, leaping into action before coverage of the story can be fully constrained.

There is no doubt, however, that in recent years media have been under intensified pressure across the board, and hard-won space for good reporting — even of a fleeting nature — has diminished. In the case of two major stories this year, the January stampede on the Bund in Shanghai and the capsizing in June of a cruise ship on the Yangtze River, the Chinese media were subjected to controls to an extent perhaps not seen in the past two decades of media under transition.

bj news 6
[ABOVE: Page 6 of the August 13 edition of The Beijing News, with special coverage of the Tianjin disaster.]

In sudden-breaking stories in the past, such as the high-speed rail crash in Wenzhou, domestic Chinese media have done strong reporting despite strong and directed media controls. This generally means taking advantage of confusing situations and gaps in the government response, leaping into action before coverage of the story can be fully constrained.

But soon after the explosions in Tianjin, we heard one Chinese journalist saying: “The restrictions will come sooner or later, so we have to get a move on! Let the bans race against the truth!”

Some media, we know, had already received directives on August 13, and again on August 17 there were explicit directives demanding all journalists on the scene in Tianjin be pulled back by their respective news media, and that only “authoritative information” (meaning that issued by state media or government authorities) be used in reporting.

But propaganda restrictions were in fact limited in their effectiveness. As Qian Gang, the director of the China Media Project, observes, this crisis unfolded in an area close to the capital where media are highly concentrated, with substantial ongoing impact on the public. As large numbers of journalists quickly reached the area, the local government was powerless to control their activities. Perhaps even more importantly, in his official statement on the disaster response, published on page one of the People’s Daily on August 14, Premier Li Keqiang clearly underscored the need to “release information to society in an open and transparent manner.”

In statements following previous incidents, including the Shanghai stampede and the Yangtze River cruise ship sinking, Li Keqiang did not use similar language. And while the statement did not formally give Chinese media license to report openly—let’s not forget those directives—it did allow domestic media to push the envelope to a limited but important extent.

pd all
[ABOVE: Front pages of the official People’s Daily following several major sudden-breaking incidents occurring under the leadership of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang.]

In the case of The Beijing News, we have a major commercial newspaper that between August 13 and 19 consistently ran reports on the Tianjin explosions and their aftermath on its front page, and over these news days ran 43 full pages of coverage. The newspaper’s reporting dealt with the human cost of the tragedy, with the facts on the ground, but also with the timely pursuit of the deeper causes, and the much more sensitive question of responsibility.

Media Ask the Tough Questions

Many of the initial questions were obvious. The extent of the damage on the scene was vast. So what were the hazardous materials that had caused the explosion? Were there still hazardous materials onsite, and to what extent? Was there a possibility they might set off further explosions? What were the risks of secondary contamination? Beyond these immediate questions, what sort of company was this Rui Hai International Logistics mentioned in the release from the Tianjin Public Security Bureau? Where were the environmental assessments it would necessarily have needed to operate? Why hadn’t they been made available? Also, what could account for the high level of casualties among firefighters?

As early as midday on August 13, The Beijing News issued a report through its public WeChat account dealing with this last question. But the report—“8 Questions: Why Are Rescue Workers Missing and Injured?”—was quickly removed by the authorities. It can still be found archived in other locations, including at Tencent News, where it is attributed to “The Beijing News new media.”

Shortly after, the newspaper posted another: “1 Question: How Could Rui Hai International Logistics’ Container Yard Restructuring Project Pass Environmental Inspection?” The article, also now apparently unavailable, questioned whether the official inspection so necessary in the case of the handling of hazardous materials had been handled properly. It also asked whether Rui Hai International Logistics might have violated environmental and safety regulations.

not found
[ABOVE: Early coverage of the Tianjin explosions at the National Business Daily now brings up a “404 Not Found” message.]

Another question was quickly raised by the National Business Daily: “How can such a dangerous facility be placed so near residential areas?” The paper’s report focused on the fact that the Rui Hai Logistics facility had in fact been built after nearby residential housing. So how had the project managed to get approval in the first place? The National Business Daily piece has since been removed, leaving this 404 error in its place.

Tencent Finance ran a report called, “Behind the Tianjin Explosions: How Could Rui Hai’s Dangerous Warehouse Cross the 1,000-meter Safety Line?” Highlighting national regulations, which clearly state that warehouse facilities for hazardous materials must be placed at least 1,000 meters away from other neighbouring structures, roads and transportation, the report again asked how Rui Hai had managed to build its facility in such a location.

tencent[ABOVE:A report from Tencent Finance on safety issues behind the storing of hazardous materials so close to residential areas.]

On August 13, the second morning after the disaster, The Beijing News ran a report called, “8 Questions Unanswered 24 Hours After the Explosions: Let Us Answer Them.” The report dealt with several core issues, including the nature of the explosive materials and their destructive power, the role of environmental and safety assessments, planning considerations (including proximity to residential areas), and how the question of responsibility would be dealt with. The report was shared widely through WeChat groups, clocking more than 100,000 views and 1,000 likes within a short period of time. As of August 20, the report, again by “The Beijing News new media,” remains available.

On August 14, four full pages of coverage in China Youth Daily grappled with four key questions: 1) Had the company in question, Rui Hai, actually met environmental standards?; 2) Why had a hazardous materials depot been so close to residential areas?; 3) Are there loopholes in the process of licensing for the handling of hazardous materials?; 4) Were fire safety procedures and their execution correct and sufficient?

china youth[ABOVE: August 14, 2015, coverage from the China Youth Daily.]

At 8PM on August 14, Caixin Media ran an exclusive report called, “Auxiliary Firefighters First to the Scene, Number of Casualties Unclear.” The piece dealt with the management, politics and economics of firefighting in China, an important yet obscure piece of the puzzle—exposing a system that relied on informal, or bianwai (编外), hires who did much of the hard work of firefighting without sufficient training or pay. This piece remains available at Caixin, but has been scrubbed from Tencent News, which had posted it for a time.

At 8PM the next day, August 15, authorities in Tianjin held their fourth press conference following the explosions. Many people claiming to be the relatives of firefighters who had responded on the night of August 12 pounded on the doors of the conference room, shouting that they could not reach their loved ones, and that they had seen no information about them in official notices.

That same afternoon, China Newsweekly had posted a report through its official WeChat public account called, “Not Just Firefighters, But Many Police at the Public Security Office of the Tianjin Port Are Also Not Public Servants.” (非公务员). The piece, which remains available on the China Newsweekly website as of August 20, confirmed that the first to arrive at the scene on August 12 had been a firefighting squad belonging to the Public Security Office of the Tianjin Port, but that they were not official hires (不属公务员编制). From this point on, the question of missing firefighters turned also to the deeper question of how China’s firefighting system was structured and managed.

china newswkly[ABOVE: China Newsweekly reporting on the Tianjin explosions.]

On August 16, Caixin Media came out with another report, “Mystery of Materials at Rui Hai Warehouse, Fire Response Handling of Hazardous Materials at Root of the Chaos,” which pointed out that Rui Hai had been unable still to provide a clear account of what sort of hazardous materials had been stored at the facility in what amounts, and that there were major discrepancies between numbers provided by customs officials and responsible persons at the company. The article remains available as of August 20.

When the high-speed rail crash occurred in China four years ago, Sina Weibo became the primary platform through which information was transmitted inside China. In the case of Tianjin, we see WeChat now playing a primary role. According to preliminary statistics provided by the WeChat public account “Xin Bang” (新榜), there were 1,674 articles dealing with the Tianjin explosions on the public accounts of Chinese media organisations on August 13, of which 55 articles were read 100,000 times or more (including quite a few read more than 1 million times).

One such post was “6 Major Questions About the Tianjin Explosions: What Exactly Are These Hazardous Materials (Drone Video Included?” The post, which as promised included footage over the scene of devastation taken with a drone, asked why — 19 hours after the explosions — it had still not been determined exactly what explosive materials had been? Further, it asked whether the decision to locate a hazardous materials depot had been properly handled, and why casualties among firefighters were so high. The post quickly reached more than 100,000 views.

drone included[ABOVE: Screen capture from a drone video provided via WeChat by The Paper.]

Thanks largely to the mobile internet as a real-time information sharing platform, questions about the disaster surfaced quickly. Within 48 hours, media had already honed in on a number of core points for investigation. These included: The cause of the explosions (and whether inadequate firefighting methods contributed); the problem presented by 700 tonnes of sodium cynanide (obviously directly concerning public health and safety); the facts about Rui Hai International Logistics and its connections; loopholes in the government’s system of oversight.

Investigative Reporting in the Age of New Media

In handling information surrounding major disasters, Chinese authorities do their utmost to emphasise natural or inevitable causes, restraining discussions of human error that might touch on the question of the government’s own responsibility or negligence. By August 15, however, Chinese media were probing more deeply into the people and decisions behind the Tianjin explosions.

Among the first was the China Times, which on August 15 ran a report called, “No Permit for Handling Hazardous Materials, With Backing from High-level Officials and Others.” At just before 8AM the same day, Southern Metropolis Daily made a post to its mobile app called, “Sodium Cyanide Stocks Seriously in Excess of Standards.” The report, seen below, said that while the environmental assessment from Rui Hai International Logistics claimed that at most 10 tonnes of sodium cyanide would be stored at the depot, estimates now suggested as many as 700 tonnes had been on site.

smd app[ABOVE: A report released by the Southern Metropolis Daily through its mobile app on August 15, 2015.]

The Southern Metropolis Daily promoted the report, which remains available online as of August 20, through other channels as well, including its official Weibo account, where a post linking to the report again included a video from the scene of devastation on August 12.

That day, the print edition of the China Youth Daily carried a report on its front page called, “Depot Site of Explosions Had Constant Accidents in the Past.” The report can be seen just below the main photograph in the image below.

cyd[ABOVE: China Youth Daily’s front page on August 15, 2015.]

On the night of August 15, Caijing magazine ran a special feature called, “Rui Hai Logistics, Site of Tianjin Port Explosions, in Violation of Numerous Regulations.” The report said the question of whether Rui Hai had been properly qualified to handle hazardous materials was at the heart of the disaster, and probable negligence on this count had sown the seeds of tragedy. The online version of the report at Caijing was still available as of August 20.

All of these reports made it painfully clear that in the case of the Tianjin explosions it was more than fair to apply those two words Chinese officials least like to see in cases such as this. This was most certainly a “human disaster,” or renhuo (人祸).

In the early morning hours of August 15, The Paper noted pointedly in a summary of the Tianjin story that up to that point three separate press conferences had been held and yet nothing had been revealed about what hazardous materials were actually present at the blast site. The following day, again in the early hours of morning, the Science and Technology Daily issued a special report called, “Sodium Cyanide Was Not the ‘Original Culprit’ in the Tianjin Explosions,” which continued to explore the questions of which hazardous materials had been stored at the depot.

scienc tech[ABOVE: The Science and Technology Daily explores the chemicals behind the Tianjin explosions on the front page of its August 16 edition. The article is at the bottom of the page, beside the photograph.]

Meanwhile, the mysterious background of the company behind the explosions, Rui Hai International Logistics, had been another focus of enterprising media investigations.

On August 13, Caixin released a preliminary report called, “The Details on Rui Hai International, the Company Involved in the Tianjin Explosions of August 12.” The report, which remains available as of August 20, revealed that Rui Hai’s background was complex, that its shareholders and executives had also invested in other companies in the same or related businesses.

caixin2[ABOVE: Caixin probes into the background of Rui Hai International Logistics, the company whose depot was the site of the explosions in the Tianjin Port on August 12.]

On August 15, Jiemian, another new mobile news site based out of Shanghai, followed with a report called, “Rui Hai’s Mysterious Background: Dealings With the State-Owned Sinochem,” also available here, which reviewed information on the shareholders of Rui Hai International Logistics and found that many of its senior executives had served in posts at Sinochem Group, a Chinese state conglomerate specialising in the distribution of petrochemicals and agrochemicals, and which managed the logistics business at the Tianjin Port.

On August 16, Tencent Finance’s “Prism” (棱鏡) section reported that the second-largest shareholder in Rui Hai International Logistics had admitted to being a mere “stand-in” (替人代持) for another key player. Later that night, Caijing magazine ran its own special report, “True Shareholder of Rui Hai Logistics Comes to Light,” in which it revealed that a key shareholder was in fact the son of the former police chief of the Tianjin Port.

caijing2[ABOVE: Caijing’s report on August 16 on the mystery shareholder behind Rui Hui International Logistics.]

On August 17, The Beijing News reported the same revelation through its WeChat public account: “The son of the former police chief of the Tianjin Port is fingered as the hidden shareholder of Rui Hai! Getting to the Bottom of Rui Hai International.” “Yesterday,” the post began, “Shu Zheng, a shareholder in Rui Jin International, the company involved in the Tianjin explosions, said that he was just holding shares for another, and that he ‘only knew that someone had used my identification card.’”

BN app[ABOVE: August 17 coverage by The Beijing News, released through its WeChat public account.]

Soon after the post from The Beijing News, China Newsweekly released its own investigation: “Dong Shexuan, Son of Former Police Chief of Tianjin Port, Revealed As Having Many Aliases.” The report was also made available on Netease and other sites.

By this point, “getting to the bottom of Rui Hai” (起底瑞海) had already become a popular meme on the mobile internet. On August 17, Jiemian (界面新聞) released an investigation called, “Behind the Rise of Rui Hai: A Case of Corruption Between Mysterious Persons and a State-Owned Enterprise,” which was subsequently picked up by many overseas websites, including Boxun. The report traced Rui Hai and the warehouse complex to its beginnings and a mysterious person by the name of Yu Xuewei (于学伟). According to reports in Hong Kong, including this excellent one from The Initium, Yu Xuewei had also registered a company of the same name in Hong Kong.

The Beijing News, China Youth Daily, The Paper, Caixin Media, Caijing and others proved quite versatile and multifaceted in their approaches to reporting on the Tianjin disaster. The 21st Century Business Herald also made its mark on the story, contributing a report called, “A Real Investigation of Sodium Cyanide Production Enterprises in Hebei,” detailing the lingering dangers of the broader industry in China.

selecton[ABOVE: A selection of the major reports released through WeChat subscription accounts.]

In the aftermath of the explosions in Tianjin, the response from the Chinese media was rapid, and breakthroughs in the investigation came quickly, helping to build momentum. The director of the Journalism & Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong, Ying Chan, a long-time observer of the changes the new media age has brought to investigative reporting, says that Chinese media proved through their reporting on this story that they are capable of leveraging the strengths of new media, “getting nearer to the truth in relay fashion.”

Does This Equal Change?

Qian Gang of the China Media Project believes that the diligence and energy of the Chinese media in the first week following the Tianjin explosions is similar to what we saw in the case of the high-speed rail crash in 2011. The public opinion environment we’ve seen in the aftermath of the explosions, he says, is fascinating, with much that invites further study — not least the way in which the media’s efforts to get to the bottom of the question of responsibility coincided with the needs of the senior leadership.

For a major tragedy of this scale to occur so close to the capital city of Beijing, and so near to a military parade planned to commemorate the anniversary of the end of the Second World War, is most surely a shock for leaders in Zhongnanhai, says Qian. Already, the accident has exposed serious institutional shortcomings and vulnerabilities at a time when China is preparing to showcase its strength before the world.

Visiting the site of the Tianjin explosions on August 16, Premier Li Keqiang emphasised that “if authoritative release [of information] cannot keep up, then rumours will abound.” Air, water and soil quality and other environmental indicators should be accurately measured, he said, and the information shared in an open and transparent manner. “If something is this harmful, we must be open and transparent about it,” he said. “We cannot accept any omissions.” Holding a meeting at disaster relief headquarters, he said, “[We must] strictly seek liability, strictly seek accountability and severely mete out punishment.”

smd[ABOVE: The front page of the Southern Metropolis Daily on August 17, 2015.]

On August 17, the Oriental Morning Post and Southern Metropolis Daily both reported Li Keqiang’s remarks on the front page with bold headlines: “Li Keqiang: [We] Must Fully Investigate Who Is Responsible.”

On the afternoon of August 18, an official announcement posted to the website of China’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) said that Yang Dongliang (杨栋樑), the top official in charge of China’s State Administration of Work Safety, the very same man who three days earlier had been made leader of the State Council’s special investigative team to look into the Tianjin explosions, was now under investigation for “serious violations of law and discipline.”

The Chinese media’s own investigation into possible negligence within the State Administration of Work Safety got under way immediately. Through its news app, the Southern Metropolis Daily released a report called, “Work Safety Administration Website Posts Transport Department Document to Push Off Responsibility: Who Could Guess the Administration’s Director Would Fall the Next Day?” The report, posted on to other websites, included a screenshot of the CCDI announcement.

Against this sort of backdrop, those responsible for implementing information controls in China will find it nearly impossible to handle this as they have so many sudden-breaking incidents in the past, tightly binding the media and restricting the process of media monitoring, what is called in Chinese “supervision by public opinion,” or yulun jiandu (舆论监督).

It will also be exceptionally difficult for them to go back to resort to their old tricks on this particular story, demanding that the media “do negative stories in a positive manner,” turning a deeply troubling tragedy toward such themes as “great love” and “heroic praise” — or even, as the case with other tragedies this year, using them to stoke praise for the pro-activeness of the government. In fact, we have seen such stories in the wake of the Tianjin explosions, but so far they have not carried the day.

As for what we can expect to see from China’s media environment for the near and foreseeable future, Qian Gang says the situation remains what he has called the “Three C’s” — Control (控制), Change (变化) and Chaos (混沌). Controls on the media will continue through propaganda directives, pressure on media, the deletion of news reports and social media posts, the punishment of those said to have spread “rumours,” and other constantly adapting means as the leadership tries to maintain its mastery of information (or “guidance of public opinion”). But ongoing change — including rapid technological advancements in the media — will mean that media continue to seek new ways of being relevant. Meanwhile, continuing shifts in China (social, economic, political, technological, circumstantial) will create “chaos,” or confusion, that can provide media with gaps to be exploited.

This time, the right combination of “change” and “chaos” afforded Chinese media an opportunity they grabbed to great effect — just when a series of major stories in recent months and years had begun to make it seem they were in full professional retreat.

Will these momentary gains be in any way sustainable? Can we expect more strong reporting from Chinese media? Now, as reports from Tianjin are turning toward the question of anti-corruption, we will have to watch and see.

Han Xiao is a research associate at the China Media Project. This article was translated by David Bandurski.

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