ZHEYAN NI compares the ramifications of China’s responses to the two disasters on public opinion.
On August 12, a massive explosion rocked the northern Chinese city of Tianjin, leading to over 170 deaths and nearly 800 injuries. The incident shocked the entire nation. It also created many challenges for the Chinese government.
The Communist state has a history of responding to national disasters by examining accountability and controlling public opinions. By comparing its responses to the Tianjin explosion and the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, we can see that despite the many situational differences between these two incidents, the government reactions to these disasters and their social ramifications are quite similar.
The magnitude-8.0 Wenchuan earthquake in 2008 caused approximately 70,000 deaths. Since the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, which killed over 240,000 people, China requires that new buildings have the capability to withstand major seismic disturbances. But in the case of Sichuan, over 7,000 schoolrooms collapsed, mostly in rural areas, reportedly leading to the death of nearly 5,000 students (though some parents believe the real figure is twice the officially cited one). Questions were raised about how rigorously construction codes have been enforced during China’s epic building boom.
Liang Wei, Executive Vice President of the Urban Planning Design and Research Institute of Tsinghua University, claimed publicly, “any building that collapsed instantaneously must have failed to conform to civil planning standards.”
In Tianjin, the power of the explosion was equivalent to that of a magnitude-2.3 earthquake, causing extensive destruction in and around the blast site. Apartment blocks two kilometers from the site sustained shattered glass, ceiling damage, and the displacement of thousands of people.
The cause for the disaster is believed to have been the mishandling of toxic and flammable chemicals stored at the warehouse station of the Port of Tianjin. The warehouse is owned by Ruihai Logistics, which the government officially recognizes as a hazardous chemical storage facility. Safety regulations requiring that public buildings and facilities should be at least one kilometer away were apparently not followed. Within one kilometer of the explosion site, there are three large residential blocks with over 5,600 residents who had little idea of the danger before the incident.
On social media, injured local residents reported that the government did not fully compensate them. A local resident, who was seriously injured, opined on Weibo that the government failed to provide a reasonable amount for housing damage and medical care. (The original post has now been censored.)
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, assistant editor at Foreign Policy Magazine, commented, “If there had been any residential protection associations in Tianjin, they could have warned local people of potential danger of living close to the chemicals storage site or could have lobbied for higher compensation from the authority.”
Controlling Public Opinion
The policy failures that led to these national disasters invited anger from the public and pressure on the government to make concrete changes. Nonetheless, utilizing many powerful state mechanisms to mitigate or cover up social discontent, the government has been able to keep public criticism under control.
Before the 2008 Wenchuan earthquakes, school construction issues were widely reported through conventional media channels such as local newspapers and the Party-authorized Xinhua News. Such news reports could be easily censored and forbidden from circulation. In addition, affected families predominantly came from underdeveloped regions of Sichuan province, where the lack of economic or political capital prevented them from raising their voice on a nationwide scale. Moreover, since the damage of the earthquake was severe, more energy was directed to rescue and recovery than to blame and well-deserved criticism. This allowed the government to redirect public attention from scandals to heroic acts, courage and love, all of which could serve the CCP’s grand agenda of social harmony and national unity. For example, stories were published to praise a female policeman who breastfed infant orphans and a nurse who suffered from miscarriage after helping transport patients from hospitals to safe areas. They were named the “Most Heroic Individuals” of the year.
In the case of the Tianjin explosion, Weibo became the major platform for voicing public opinions. As of August 13, there were over 700 million clicks on the article hashtagged “Tianjin Tanggu Explosion” and over one million relevant posts. On Zhihu, the Chinese equivalent of the question-and-answer Quora, witnesses of the explosion posted pictures and descriptions of the blast site. Unlike victims of the Sichuan earthquake who were not used to self-reporting on smartphones, witnesses of the Tianjin explosion mostly came from urban, tech-savvy middle class families. Their narratives of the accident were unaffected by Party-sanctioned tones and perspectives, and were thus arguably more authentic.
Soon after the explosion triggered discussions on social media, the government began to censor critical comments. A freelancer, Wu Jing, reported on Weibo that some injured residents of Tianjin were arrested for protesting on the street and asking for higher compensation from the government. This post was quickly taken down.
The official news report also refused to acknowledge any environmental ramifications of the explosion. According to International Business Times, after the first rains following the initial explosions came on August 18, white chemical foam covered the streets. Citizens complained of burning sensations and rashes on skin after coming into contact with rain droplets. However, Tianjin’s environmental authorities said pollution in air and water remained at safe levels, while the Environment Protection Board advised against exposure to the rain due to traces of cyanide dust reacting with water.
It is important to note that just days after the explosion on September 3, a massive military parade would come to celebrate the “Seventieth Anniversary of Victory of Chinese People’s Resistance against Japanese Aggression and World Anti-Fascist War.” Therefore, the goal of crisis management after the Tianjin explosion was to put down any political unrest and create a forced social harmony.
Challenge or Opportunity
Disasters, whether natural or manmade, repeatedly reflect bureaucratic ills of China’s ruling power. Beyond rescue and recovery, citizens also demand improvement and correction of the current economic and political model.
One way to respond to this request, without jeopardizing the authority of the CCP, is to enhance governmental regulation on economic activities. For instance, on January 1 this year, the government released a new Environmental Protection Law. From January to July, legal enforcement authority has processed 348 cases and issued fines totalling ¥282 million. On October 1, the government enacted new food safety regulation with heightened enforcement measures.
The trajectory of political development during Xi Jinping’s administration has been towards a stronger state and a smaller society. This “small society” is marked by diminishing channels for civic engagement in political and social matters. Accompanying the enforcement of stricter safety regulations and anti-corruption laws is the imposition of more rigorous censorship of speech and regulation of NGOs. Allen-Ebrahimian commented on this phenomenon that “the ongoing crackdown on civil societies and grassroots associations can damage their role as watchdog of law enforcement issues, but social media will remain a powerful tool for people to learn what’s happening and to voice their first-hand experiences.”
According to Robert Zoellick, former President of World Bank and former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, preservation of the CCP ruling legitimacy has become Xi Jinping’s primary goal. So far, the “stronger state, smaller society” strategy has benefited this objective. Public opinions of Xi Jinping remain largely positive. Many praise his determination to cleanse the Party as well as the polluting air. Hardly anyone would blame him for blocking Gmail or censoring Weibo speech.
Xi is taking charge of China at a particularly delicate time when the government needs a strong-willed leader to deal with social discontent. Utilizing his personal charisma, Xi might be able to turn a disaster from a challenge of legitimacy to an opportunity to impose more governmental influence in operation of the society in the name of social harmony and national unity.
Zheyan Ni is a recent graduate of Wesleyan University and a current Princeton in Asia fellow in Hong Kong. Contact her at