BEIJING – It's routine for Chinese news outlets to be shuttered after a disaster or scandal breaks out in China – from the deadly Sichuan earthquake to numerous coal mine accidents across the country. Such forceful silencing is usually ordered by local governments in order to cover up their abuse of power or malfeasance; or it comes from directives higher up in the central government out of fear that mass gatherings or protests could turn into social unrest.
But any effort to silence outrage in Shanghai failed one week after an inferno enveloped a high-rise and left 58 people dead and 71 injured.
News about the high-rise fire spread at an uncontrollable speed by tech-savvy Shanghai citizens. Photos taken with cell phones or home video cameras and eyewitness reports quickly spread – long before the official news outlets mentioned the disaster – on blogs, microblogs, and popular web sites. Sophisticated Shanghainese didn’t rely on traditional media to get the information out.
The seventh day after a tragedy marks an important traditional Chinese mourning day, so on Sunday tens of thousands of citizens went to the high-rise fire site to pay their respects for those killed in the blaze with flowers and handwritten signs.
The outpouring of condolences – which appeared unorganized and spontaneous – did not get out of control, but in the afternoon police had to block off the neighborhood when growing crowds swarmed the area. The Shanghai party chief and mayor even showed up at the site, bowing three times and laying white chrysanthemums as a symbol of sympathy.
The traditional media did not remain silent in the wake of this disaster either. After expressing sorrow, critical reports were everywhere.
“Urban Express," a local Hangzhou newspaper, fired a sharp arrow by asking, “If we use the money for the ‘surface’ on improving internal fire prevention, how could this have happened?"
“Better city, better life,” a slogan used by the Shanghai government during the recent World Expo, was taken over and used as a sarcastic phrase by the media.
After four illegal welders were arrested on the second day of the fire, angry comments were posted on almost on every Web site questioning who was really responsible and arguing the welders should not be scapegoats. Local TV and papers soon responded to populist demands for an investigation revealing the names of a series of companies that repeatedly subcontracted the project.
Critical questions were also raised about the Shanghai fire stations which had boasted that they had spent about $2.2 million importing world-class equipment from Sweden, none of which was used to contain the fire on Nov 15. A national newspaper called “Twenty-First Century Economic Reports” reported on the subcontractor’s history of winning over 60 government bids in the past three years. A cartoon of a migrant worker that became popular among netizens had a caption that said: “I just want to make a living as you do, I’m not a scapegoat.”
Many netizens were glad to see the outrage. “Why do I respect Shanghai citizens? So many disasters happened in Shanxi and Henan, people just accepted them without any public condolences, including the miners’ relatives. Only in Shanghai do the people here show their respect for life, they do not want to give up!” wrote a microblogger called Song Jianfeng. The comment was so popular that it seemed it was forwarded to every microblgging service in China.
In contrast, the state-run Xinhua News Agency focused its reports on lauding the rescue work by firefighters and doctors, provoking criticism that it was “turning a tragedy into a comedy."
But it may be too early to say Shanghai’s fire has transformed China’s media control. After all, what “the Ministry of Truth” confronted this time was millions of savvy Shanghainese who know far better what do to than uneducated and disadvantaged countrymen from other parts of China.