It’s the new normal in China. Skepticism and rumors about the death toll have seemingly followed every disaster or accident in recent years. The June 30 shopping center fire in Jixian County (蓟县), a suburb of Tianjin, is a typical example. Although the government announced later on the same day that ten people died, netizens were far from convinced. Rumors about the number of deaths flooded Chinese social media immediately after the accident.
Two and a half weeks later, the doubt online began to diminsh. On July 17, both Caijing Magazine (@财经杂志), one of the most influential independent media in China, and China Central Television (CCTV) released detailed on-the-spot coverage of the accident. Both reports seemed to uphold the official number of deaths and invalidate most of the rumors.
But even if people were relieved, the relief came too late. Indeed, the way the local government handled the situation exacerbated netizen rumors and doubts. According to Caijing, during the first few weeks after the accident, government officers guarded the hospital wards of the victims, driving away journalists who were trying to conduct interviews. Lawyers involved in the case were not allowed to give opinions without permission from the Justice Bureau. Those measures led to the inevitable online speculation that government was concealing a terrible truth.
In fact, those measures had a purpose: To “maintain social stability”(维持社会稳定). In other words, the measures were designed to prevent mass disturbance, which is now considered the top priority in nearly all government decision-making. Even now, many government officials seem still to think that the less informed people are, the less unrest will spread, and the less likely mass disturbance to occur. As a result, unless it is confident that the situation is under its control, the government limits information revealed after emergencies happen, and sometimes even fabricates information to “mitigate social sentiment”(舒缓社会情绪).
Time for an old dog to learn new media tricks
The strategy worked well when traditional media was the only channel to share news, because traditional media are much more susceptible to government censorship. But the advent of social media drastically changed the communication landscape. With social media, since every netizen can be a news source, no one has the power to dictate what topics to discuss or what information to share. Even if censors block certain keywords, netizens are almost always able to share relevant information using coded language.
Far from keeping people calm, the silence of China’s traditional media now only ignites outbursts of skepticism and unauthorized hearsay online. In response, the government is forced not only to release information, but to act immediately, since the ever-increasing speed of communication on social media renders any reaction lag unacceptable. As @安迪斯晨风 points out on Weibo, China’s Twitter: “Government officials are so outdated. The way they deal with emergencies, disclose information and interact with the media is just the same as 20 years ago, merely going through the motions. They don’t see that the system of communication has changed so much.” As the fire in Jixian shows, the strategy of concealment only engendered more risk of instability, countervailing its original purpose.
There is some evidence attitudes are shifting, even if the old ideology remains deeply rooted in the minds of many government officials. Take the government response following recent the torrential (and deadly) rain in Beijing. On July 25, four days after the disaster, a government spokesperson consciously avoided talking about the increase in numbers of verified deaths. On the same day, the government quashed eight pages’ worth of death toll coverage by the newsmagazine Southern Weekend (@南方周末) right before it could be published. The backlash on social media was immense. Another round of questioning and doubt gained momentum quickly, and netizens actively shared the cancelled coverage online.
But this time the pressure from netizens seems to have pushed government officials to make a change. Just one day later, the government announced the updated number of deaths: 77. The Party-line People’s Daily (@人民日报) and CCTV published a list of names of the dead, the first time in Chinese media history. A 22-page coverage was allowed to appear on The Beijing News (@新京报) the day after.
There is some reason to expect the government to be more candid in the future. On July 26, the People’s Daily ran an editorial piece entitled “The number of dead is not politically sensitive,” urging the government “to recognize the new features of communication on social media, to face social concerns due to a growing awareness of civil rights, and to establish credibility by interacting with the public.”
Even Hu Xijin (@胡锡进), the editor-in-chief of the conservative Global Times (@环球时报), thinks the impact will be profound. “Netizens’ inquiry and doubts about whether the number of deaths is fabricated have generated huge pressure,” he wrote in a recent Weibo post. “Now, the risk of concealing the truth are much greater than that of revealing the truth. I hope this risk can ensure the government does not lie about this again.”