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Chinese Media, Residents Continue To Question Cause Of Tianjin Explosions


Last week's disastrous explosions in Tianjin, China, led to angry protests. More than a hundred people were killed in the blasts. Deadly industrial accidents in China are not rare and there are claims that the warehouse where the explosions originated was holding dangerous chemicals in excess of legal limits and too close to people's homes. How well can the Chinese people follow events in Tianjin, and how much protest is tolerated? Well, we're going to ask Xiao Qiang, who's an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley and editor-in-chief of the China Digital Times.

Welcome to the program.

XIAO QIANG: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: Let's start with the official state media. You have published the instructions they received on coverage of the explosions in Tianjin, and they do not amount to a mission to inform the public. Read some of what Chinese media were told by the authorities about their coverage of this.

QIANG: Well, the typical ones do not do independent reporting, only use the authorized state media reports, which usually means Xinhua News Agency and CCTV, the Chinese national central TV - no live broadcasting. And there is another directive that specifically instruct the media personnel - journalists and reporters and TV anchors - do not use their own social media account to even talk about the event.

SIEGEL: And do not interpret the event.

QIANG: Do not add any personal interpretation to the event. Those instructions, in this case, was only partially effective. There are - a large amount of Chinese media send their reporters to the site anyway even they know maybe at the end of the day they cannot publish some of those reporting.

SIEGEL: On social media, I've read that tens of millions of Chinese were following feeds from and about Tianjin within hours of the explosions.

QIANG: Sure. Social media is pervasive in China and everybody has a cell phone, and those kind of photos and gossips and rumors and questions and angry outcries and - anything will fly almost instantly. Chinese authority made a tremendous effort trying to control the public opinion or leading the public opinion a certain way. For example, put a focus glorifying the firefighters and their efforts, which is all fine, but then they can now leave out the unanswered questions like how many people actually died.

SIEGEL: If a resident of Tianjin lost a family member, or lost a home, for that matter, in these explosions and that person wants to see justice done, what can they do and what are the limits of the kinds of actions they might take?

QIANG: Well, that is the hardest thing in the Chinese society. The good example in this case is the denial of the deaths of those firefighters at the beginning because the first group of firefighters being sent to the spot were the firefighters who belong to the Tianjin Port. They are - most of them are contract workers, and the way you see the government published the firefighters and their names on a list, over 50 of those contract worker firefighters, their names were not on it. And their families were furious and they were desperate, so they had a physical protest outside of an official press conference to say, where is our son, where is our husbands, until their outcry had been heard by the media. And five days later, some of their names have been added to the death toll.

SIEGEL: I just want you to try to reconcile this seeming contradiction to Americans, which is, we understand that people in China have precious few rights, if any, to see their grievances redressed. On the other hand, news of protests in China really aren't that rare. There are work stoppages all over the country. There seem to be demonstrations. People seem to be remarkably brave in the face of a system that could lock them up for any protest activity.

QIANG: People were remarkably desperate in so many places and so many situations - China going through such vast, profound and rapid changes economically, socially and politically, but most important is the price of that change. So those kind of injustice is all over the Chinese society, and therefore despite of the repressive regime, the protests were everywhere at any given time.

SIEGEL: Xiao Qiang, editor-in-chief of the China Digital Times and adjunct professor at UC Berkeley, thanks for talking with us.

QIANG: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.