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Is this China’s Chernobyl moment?

The Tianjin explosion, which temporarily darkened the skies in one part of China, could end up darkening the public’s mood vis-à-vis the authorities across the country.

Maria Repnikova
26 August 2015
Tianjin Port. Demotix/DemotixLiveNews4. All rights reserved.

Tianjin Port. Demotix/DemotixLiveNews4. All rights reserved.In the wake of the hellish chemical explosion in Tianjin, some Chinese and western commentators have invoked the spectre of Chernobyl, the 1986 disaster sometimes seen as marking the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. As Chinese authorities struggle to contain information about and quell discontent relating to this catastrophe, which cost scores of lives and left a massive crater in the port city closest to Beijing, some are asking if it could have Chernobyl-like political aftershocks.

There are definitely parallels. Here, again, a large-scale man-made disaster has struck at a politically sensitive time. Mikhail Gorbachev was carrying out a drastic top-down reform of the Soviet system in 1986, while Xi Jinping is in the midst of an intense anti-corruption campaign, working to restructure the economy, and dealing with a stock market crisis. In addition, ‘information management’ was at the heart of ‘crisis management’ in the Soviet case and the same is true now in China. The Chinese leadership is being accused of cover-ups, sparking public mistrust of the state — a phenomenon familiar to Gorbachev.

Tianjin Port. Demotix/DemotixLiveNews4. All rights reserved.

Tianjin Port. Demotix/DemotixLiveNews4. All rights reserved.There are, though, important differences to keep in mind, especially in the way that official communication on Tianjin has diverged from the Chernobyl model. The Soviet disaster was followed by a long official silence; the first report by a state news agency, TASS, came 65 hours after the explosion.  

But such a delay was neither feasible nor intended when Tianjin’s Ruihai shipping terminal blew up. Internet-savvy Chinese citizens started spreading news and images on social networks immediately, and the international press quickly followed suit, making days of official silence unthinkable.

Tianjin residents demand compensation. Demotix/Geovien So. All rights reserved.

Tianjin residents demand compensation. Demotix/Geovien So. All rights reserved.Beyond this, the Chinese authorities, while sometimes still treating information as a “ virus on the verge of infecting the masses,” now often treat crisis coverage as a potent tool to be deployed. For the past decade, Chinese authorities have refined a ‘contained transparency’ approach, focusing on guiding public opinion via selective censorship mixed with the selective dissemination of information and responsiveness to public grievances. Some media coverage is allowed, but reporting is restricted as much as possible to the official version of the Xinhua News Agency. Central officials make appearances at disaster sites and hold news conferences, albeit sometimes after a short delay, and the official press carries hopeful messages regarding disaster relief and top-level investigations. This was the approach to Tianjin.

Although censorship was pervasive after the blast, it was carefully targeted. Many critical posts were swept from the web, but many survived, even if only temporarily. Moreover, a number of traditional media platforms launched impressive investigations of the disaster, pushing the envelope of the official directive of Xinhua-only coverage. Topics they covered included the ownership structure of Ruihai, the high death toll among fire-fighters, and the links between Ruihai and the state-owned company Sinopec.  These reports called, in different ways, for greater official accountability. The state’s willingness to allow these reports to circulate points to the intentionally incomplete nature of control, a sense that bounded bottom-up feedback can be helpful rather than harmful even in a state that prizes top-down control.

Medical professionals, Tianjin. Demotix/Geovien So. All rights reserved.

Medical professionals, Tianjin. Demotix/Geovien So. All rights reserved.Finally, we are now seeing a burst of official responsiveness to public questioning and discontent. Top executives of the offending company have been detained, and the mayor of Tianjin publicly admitted responsibility for the scandal. This official responsiveness to the disaster, however, is being carefully managed to ensure that the central state can still be seen as a benevolent guardian, while the blame is placed squarely on local officials.  

This approach to problems, a Chinese variant on what in a Russian context is sometimes called the ‘Good Czar’ spin on bad news, is not just deployed by the centre but also can occasionally inform liberal press coverage of crises. If the pattern holds true, we will see, as in the past, state efforts to punish the guilty that highlight local-level mistakes, while shying away from considerations of broad systemic problems.

Temporary medical tents. Demotix/Geovien So. All rights reserved.

Temporary medical tents. Demotix/Geovien So. All rights reserved.Does the sophisticated mode of crisis management we see in Xi’s China inoculate it from anti-regime movements? Not necessarily so. With the public’s financial security already eroded, Tianjin is yet another test of the Chinese people’s willingness to continue renewing its contract with the state: an exchange of economic development and safety for political acquiescence. 

The Tianjin explosion, which temporarily darkened the skies in one part of China, could end up darkening the public’s mood vis-à-vis the authorities across the country. In its wake, the party-state will have to work even harder than before to walk the tricky tightrope of satisfying the public’s quest for accountability but doing so in a way that undermines only the legitimacy of local officials, not the central state.  

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