By Jackson Kwok, an intern in the Lowy Institute's East Asia Program, and Merriden Varrall, Director of the East Asia Program, Lowy Institute.
It has now been more than a week since the explosions in Tianjin occurred. Discussions on online social networks such as Weibo (China's version of Twitter) show Chinese netizens are angry. The incident has been Weibo's top trending topic for a week, with combined posts gaining more than 3 billion views.
The anger is directed at three things: how the disaster happened in the first place; how authorities have handled relief and recovery efforts; and how the incident is being reported by the media. In response, the Central Government has attempted to re-establish trust with the population. How this incident eventually plays out will reveal a great deal about the resilience of the Chinese party-state.
Following the blasts, netizens were quick to criticise the government for allowing this tragedy to occur in the first place. A user called'Dream of the Beginning 124' commented on Weibo that 'such dangerous chemicals should never have entered a residential area, and those government officials certainly bear responsibility!!'
Other netizens questioned why harmful chemicals were being stored within 600m of residential areas. According to The People's Daily, the law for businesses involving dangerous chemicals states that these materials should be stored at least 1km from public buildings and transport networks. In the case of the Tianjin explosions, there were three major residential communities within 1km of the warehouse.
So far there is no consensus as to who is responsible, but many netizens suspect corruption by local government officials who overlooked such safety laws. As Weibo user 'Crazy Lost Heart' said, 'surely this is the smell of corrupt officials, infringing the law for their own benefit.' [fold]
Netizens are also angry with how local authorities have handled the disaster so far, both in terms of responding to the blasts and communicating the situation to the public.
There have been many comments about the apparent incompetence of local officials. Many netizens feel government incompetence has caused the deaths of firefighters and soldiers. A comment by 'Are You Not An Actor__' illustrates the overall sentiment:
Are these officials beasts? To let these young recruits rush to their deaths and not report the truth, each and every one of them abusing their power every day, and they won't even give the people an explanation. This is unacceptable.
Even the highest officials are not entirely safe. Many netizens were indignant that Premier Li Keqiang's visited Tianjin four days after the incident, despite the site being only an hour away from Beijing. User Mr`Black`F said: 'The explosions happened so many days ago, and yet the premier has only just arrived? This "show" has not been conducted very diligently.'
Both the local and central governments' inadequacy in communicating information was criticised when a live broadcast on CCTV of a press conference was abruptly cut short. In a leaked extended video of the conference, reporters can be seen bombarding local officials with aggressive questions. Unable to properly answer the reporters' questions on safety protocols, the officials decide to prematurely conclude the conference. Weibo threads referring to the conference have been removed.
Finally, netizens are angry at the censorship of online discussion. Following the explosions, China's internet censors went into overdrive, 'harmonising' posts and ensuring that online discussion of the disaster remains within approved guidelines. Unsurprisingly, censors have targeted posts with sensitive information and criticism that could potentially embarrass the local government.
In a statement released on Saturday, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) accused 50 websites of 'creating panic by publishing unverified information or letting users spread groundless rumours.' The CAC proceeded to revoke the licenses of 18 websites while suspending the operation of another 32. Netizens were unconvinced, as demonstrated in a comment by 'Ten Directions7274': 'I feel that the current control over public discussion is too strong, it's like we're returning to a previous age. Fight back rumours with the truth, what is the government afraid of??'
The most well-known case of censorship so far has been an article by Southern Weekly which cited an interview with a firefighter. The interviewee claimed that they were not told there were toxic chemicals at the site that would react dangerously with water. In response to the removal of the article, 'Royal Sky-Sea' asked: 'Why was the (Southern Weekly) post removed? Was it not important to public safety?'
Netizens' responses to the Tianjin explosions demonstrate a palpable anger about how their daily lives are managed by authorities whom they are expected to trust. In order to prove its commitment to public safety and re-establish trust, the central government has ordered a nationwide safety check and an inspection of safety regulators. An article in The People's Daily on 18 August aimed to reassure audiences that public safety remains the primary concern, but judging from the lack of online responses, netizens remain sceptical.
The People's Daily published an article on 17 August which called upon the nation to 'establish a community of trust.' This 'community,' however, demands the public's acquiescence. The unwritten social contract after Tiananmen exchanged material well-being for political acquiescence. The Government still expects the Chinese people will 'fully trust the government is doing a good job' and cease their 'blind questioning'.
But are the people still convinced? How this incident eventually plays out will reveal a great deal about the strength of the Chinese party-state and its ability to maintain the goodwill of the people.
Photo courtesy of Karl-Ludwig Poggerman.