The blasts that rocked the northern Chinese port city of Tianjin on Aug. 12 are said to have released a destructive power equivalent to an earthquake of 2.3 magnitude on the Richter scale. But the political aftershocks have been even more devastating to the Chinese government, revealing design flaws in the communist system’s ability to control information and some glaringly negligent safety regulations.
As usual, there is the media blockage. In the immediate aftermath of the blasts, the country’s powerful Internet policing authority, the Cyberspace Administration of China, issued a stern directive barring any coverage of the disaster without government approval and saying that only the official Xinhua News Agency dispatches were to be used for reporting. “Websites cannot privately collect information with regard to the accident, and when using the official version of the story, no one should add individual interpretations without prior approval. No live broadcasts,” says the directive.
But the censorship faced stronger resistance this time. A brave young Beijing reporter named He Xiaoxin broke the heavy security line surrounding the blast site and sneaked into ground zero. Using an instant-messaging service, Mr. He transmitted horrific images of charred bodies and mangled buildings reminiscent of the Hiroshima nuclear blast 70 years earlier.
The Chinese blogging community then exploded with voluminous eyewitness accounts and video clips of the entire blast sequence. Through sheer serendipity, many stargazers in the city had stayed up late that night, video recording devices and smartphones in hand, to witness the Perseid meteor shower. Those sky watchers wound up capturing the explosions, which occurred around midnight.
The government crackdown kicked in almost instantly. Within two days, the official China Daily reported that the cyberspace administration “has ordered social media enterprises to shut down more 160 rumormongering accounts permanently, and to suspend over 200.”
Altogether, over 1,000 “rumormongering” bloggers, especially the celebrity bloggers known in China as the “Big Vs” for their large followings, were busted by police for their Tianjin reporting and commentaries. On Tuesday, the Ministry of Public Security announced that over 15,000 Web users had been arrested in recent months for “endangering Internet safety.”
Yet the government’s media control seems to have come up short this time because China’s usually timid domestic media outlets began to deviate away from the party’s script. When no real information came out of the press conferences held by low-ranking, uninformed Tianjin municipal officials, Chinese reporters became increasingly aggressive. Tough questions with tinges of anger and outrage were thrown at the officials.
The blasts were believed to have been caused by chemical reactions between firefighters’ dousing water and the extremely poisonous sodium cyanide. At least 700 tons of this hazardous material were at the explosion site, an industrial warehouse lot. The obvious follow-up question: Why was so much sodium cyanide stored so closely to a densely populated residential area?
The answer lies in China’s other obsession: hoarding of gold. China has been the world’s most active buyer of gold in recent years, scooping up a huge quantity of the precious metal. China is also the world’s most active gold mining country, with tens of thousands of Chinese miners all over the world, especially in Africa.
The standard and, some argue, the most effective way to mine gold on an industrial scale is to use sodium cyanide to isolate tiny gold drops in the raw deposits. As a result, sodium cyanide prices in the international market have skyrocketed from about $1,600 per ton in 2008 to roughly $2,800 per ton today. In response, China has dramatically stepped up its sodium cyanide production. In 2008, China was still importing sodium cyanide; by 2011, China had become the world’s largest producer and exporter of sodium cyanide, with an annual output of 400,000 tons. The 700 tons of sodium cyanide stored in the Tianjin port came from the Chengxin plant in the nearby Hebei province.
The sodium cyanide bonanza has produced an environmental and safety crisis. The production and storage processes are plagued by negligence and handling irregularities, causing numerous safety disasters.
In October 2000, a truck carrying 7 tons of sodium cyanide at the Zijinshan Gold and Copper Mine in Fujian province overturned into a mountain valley, leaking a large quantity of the poisonous material with devastating environmental consequences. That incident, and others in Fujian, fueled popular protests in the coastal province over the construction of chemical plants that have severe environmental consequences.
So far, the government seems to be tone-deaf to the criticisms. No senior government officials were willing — or allowed — to take responsibility for the Tianjin disaster. For several days, no one even knew who was in charge of the rescue and relief efforts. The usually spotlight-hungry Premier Li Keqiang did not make a (cursory) visit to the blast site until five days later. The mayor of Tianjin did not show up to face the public and increasingly rebellious reporters until eight days after the blast.
The official communist newspaper, the Global Times, is clearly outraged over the outrage that has burst forth from the toxic Tianjin blasts. “Stop Cursing Us while We Are Suffering,” headlined a hard-hitting editorial this week. “Those [Chinese] reporters who cursed [the government] the most, and those who have witnessed the horror of the blasts at ground zero, do they really think this event is a turning point for China’s modernization process?” the editorial asks in an angry tone.
The Global Times then proceeds to attack its next target: “As for the citizens in Tianjin, do they really think their city is piled up like a trash mountain? Do they really think the city should be leveled and the best way is to start from zero again?”
• Miles Yu’s column appears Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @Yu_miles.