Last week’s devastating blast in the Chinese port city of Tianjin left 112 dead and hundreds more injured. Chinese social media is flooded with virtual vigil candles for those affected by the blasts and at Saturday’s Angelus in Rome, Pope Francis added his own condolences for the families grieving the tragedy.
China’s rapid ascension as a global player has not come without costs. In China, cities are built in the time it takes Americans to put up a single high-rise. Because of this, regulation and safety precautions often fall to the wayside. In February 2014, I was visiting the ancient Tibetan tourist town Shangri-La, but a fire from the month prior ravaged the village and all I saw were the smoldering shells of a once bustling business and resort center. The rumors I heard were that when firefighters showed up to combat the flames, the hydrants there were not connected to any water supply. (Later reports suggested that they were cut off to prevent pipes bursting in freezing temperatures).
Rumors are abounding again about the catastrophe in Tianjin. Why was the warehouse built so closely to residential buildings? Were the firefighters properly trained, and did throwing water on the explosion actually cause a chemical reaction to augment the fire? Did the son of the city’s former police chief have investments in the company where the explosions went off?
Sadly, it’s unlikely that the public will ever have answers to some of these questions. The Communist Party keeps a tight lid on what questions are asked and how they are answered in the press, social media and elsewhere.
One Chinese journalist posted to his blog a harsh criticism of the government’s handling of the situation:
Twenty hours after the Tianjin explosions, when we still didn’t know just what had caused it, local authorities came out and said that spreading rumors would be severely punished. Hah, doesn’t this sound a little familiar? Isn’t this how the authorities react following each and every disaster? This is the bunch of people we sing the praises of every day! They are never competent in saving lives, but they’re real good at locking people up. You squirrel yourself away and quietly make a post to Weibo [Chinese Twitter], and a few minutes later they know it was you who did it. But days after the explosions, they still don’t know just what on earth Ruihai International Logistics had in their warehouse. Does that sound plausible to you?
The Wall Street Journal reported that The Party hasn’t exactly ignored the criticism it’s received. In the People’s Daily, one of the government’s largest newspapers, they encouraged the public to trust them: “The public should also be understanding of the government’s caution and seriousness and, in particular, completely trust that the government is trying to do a good job,” the commentary added. “Always doubting and negating is not a rational attitude.”
In the West, we see such strict censorship as a crackdown of human rights to free speech. In China, they see the reports of scandals and institutional malfunction in our country and see a circus of social chaos. Once, a local member of the Communist Party bluntly asked me, “What’s more important? Being able to share your opinion on Facebook or having a stable society where you can provide for you and your family?”
We can disagree with such a dichotomy, but it’s important to remember that these are the eyes through which many Chinese see the world. It’s also important to remember that right now some of these eyes are filled with tears, some are filled with anger and frustration, all looking for answers they likely will never get.