As firefighters battled the blaze that followed two massive explosions in the Chinese port city of Tianjin on Aug. 12, the Communist Party’s Internet censors were trying to extinguish all commentary and news outside of state control.
But in the age of smartphones and an emboldened Chinese public, they couldn’t act fast enough: the vacuum filled by official media in the wake of the explosions was quickly filled by the voices of the masses, who photographed, recorded, analyzed, and reported on the unfolding catastrophe.
Most of this unofficial journalism was publicized via WeChat, a popular Chinese social media app that allows individuals (and companies) to set up public-facing accounts that other users can subscribe to. Using this technology alone, those on site, whether they were journalists with established outlets who had gone rogue, or citizens who acted out of a sense of public duty, did an end run around the strict Party controls on information.
They sought to answer some of the most pressing questions after the explosions, like: Why were there 700 tons of sodium cyanide in the warehouse? What were the custodial processes for such enormous amounts of ammonium nitrate, an explosive under certain conditions? (The second explosion on Aug. 12 was said to have the force of 21 tons of TNT. It left 116 dead.) Why were residential buildings so close? Not all questions were answered, though the authorities’ attempted coverup, and citizen journalists’ determination, helped uncover more of the truth.
The morning following the explosions, He Xiaoxin, a reporter for the state-run Beijing Daily, traveled about 100 miles from Beijing to Tianjin to cover the event. Circumventing a police line by sneaking through nearby thickets, the close-up photos and descriptions He Xiaoxin uploaded to his WeChat account throughout the day gained instant traction among netizens wishing to know the true extent of the devastation.
He Xiaoxin’s photos and commentary revealed shattered apartment blocks, continuing attempts by firefighters to put out the ongoing chemical blaze, molten metal bleeding out from the burnt hulks of cars on searing hot ground, and the arrival of troops in biochemical suits sent from Beijing to bring the situation under control.
“This is like hell on earth. I could only think of one word—Chernobyl!” He Xiaoxin wrote in his WeChat post, which was later translated and made available widely online.
“The firefighters couldn’t put out the fire. There were only a few people left, and most of them waiting for orders,” He wrote.
Other reporters had been stopped by police and removed from the scene. Shortly afterward, the Tianjin disaster became a “sensitive topic” that all media were ordered to stop reporting on: It would be handled exclusively by Xinhua, the Chinese regime’s news mouthpiece.
But the job of He Xiaoxin and others was appreciated by the public. Their taxi driver, upon learning that they were reporting the disaster, waived the fare. “‘You’ve done so much,’ she said. We still paid her in the end.”
Because of the press blackout, Tianjin residents were bombarded with Korean dramas when they switched on their television sets, instead of the expected interviews and investigative news programs covering the disaster.
“Other than the official release, hardly anything has been reported,” reads a post by “[email protected],” a Chinese user on Twitter. “No live broadcasts, no interviews. … In the West, such a major incident would be crowded with reporters at the scene. But in China, the Western reporters were actually besieged. … China is a step closer to North Korea.”
As videos and photos of the explosions that shook Tianjin’s port area spread online, a fast-paced struggle between bloggers and state censors broke out, with either side in a race to post and delete. Some netizens were arrested and dozens of websites were shut down for “spreading rumors,” Radio Free Asia reported.
Blogger Sun Junbin, posting on the WeChat account “White Horse V Perspective” described the interference he encountered when dealing with law enforcement guarding the disaster site. Sun and his team were apprehended twice and sent to the local police station, which itself had been severely damaged by the blasts.
“Today the prime minister comes to Tianjin, didn’t you know?” said a short police officer. “You are creating trouble!”
Only 3 of the 21 officers normally available were at the badly damaged station when Sun got there. It was located only 200 meters from ground zero. The rest had been injured or were still missing.
While state-run media claimed an ultimate death toll of 116, possibly hundreds of onsite laborers, firefighters, and other personnel remain unaccounted for, their fates seemingly ignored by official press.
On Aug. 17, Sun Junbin went to the Petition Office of Binhai New Area, where the disaster had struck, to interview those who had lost their apartments and belongings. Several police officers kept watch for journalists.
The police were not particularly enthusiastic about their jobs, Sun noted.
“When the people were gone, I sat in the lobby. A policeman who had been staring at me sat down and asked if I was really a reporter. I said yes. He frowned and said, ‘Well, you could have not said it. The [police] would have left in just a few minutes.'”
“I was enlightened,” Sun wrote.
‘Who is Winning the News War?’
Wen Yunchao, a New York-based human rights activist and blogger who emigrated to escape the authorities, penned an article titled “Who is Winning the News War?” that he published on his Google+ account.
“[After the press blackout] even journalists from the state-run media showed their anger. This anger delivers a signal. That is, we can be angry too,” Wen wrote.
Wen believes that the netizens and unofficial journalists have put the vehicle of social media and blogging sites to potent use in circumventing the press ban and regime censorship.
Responding to a question posted to his Twitter account by an Epoch Times reporter, Wen wrote that information gets spread “when the speed of news distribution exceeds that of censorship and deletion.”
“By the time the authorities catch on to the severity of an event,” Wen wrote, “the news has already been disseminated.”