David Wertime

Did a Chinese Safety Official Just Get Caught Smiling at a Horrific Accident Scene?

Shaanxi Safety Supervision Bureau chief Yang Dacai, suddenly famous. Via Jessica Levine

The government official looked at the horrific accident, and he laughed.

That, at least, is the story in current circulation on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, less than one day after a horrific traffic accident claimed the lives of 36 riders onboard a bus in Shaanxi province after the bus rammed into the back of a tanker carrying methanol. This accident occurred just hours after another traffic accident in Sichuan province left 11 people dead

Shortly after the Shaanxi accident, Weibo user @作家天佑 (literally, “author god bless”) tweeted an image showing an apparently well-fed middle-aged man standing behind a police cordon by a truck’s charred remains, smiling as a police officer appeared to explain something to him. Netizens quickly conducted a “human flesh search,” a crowd-sourced method of discovering a person’s identity, and found that the smiling (or was it laughing?) man was likely Yang Dacai (杨达才), chief of Shaanxi’s Safety Supervision Bureau. The results have been reposted over 8,600 times according to Hong Kong University’s Weiboscope, which tracks frequently retweeted images among prominent users.

Yang and his diverse wrist bling. Via Weibo

If anyone besides the families involved should be devastated by 36 passengers burning to death in Shaanxi, it should be Yang Dacai. This may explain China’s netizens expressing their outrage at Yang’s expression in a manner typical to the online community. Netizens have circulated a photograph showing Yang in various situations wearing a variety of expensive watches, one allegedly costing between 200,000 and 400,000 RMB (about US$30,000 – US$60,000). It goes without saying that such time pieces are more than an honest government official in China can plausibly afford. One creative netizen turned Yang into a cartoon character saying “Cheese” for an invisible camera. 

Chinese Internet users have also turned to humorous puns. Yang’s glittering array of watches has earned him various nicknames containing “biao,” the Chinese phoneme for “watch.” In particular, Yang has been called “人大戴表,” which sounds like the term given to representatives to China’s National People’s Congress, but actually means something closer to “large men wear watches.”  

Many netizens found the affair anything but funny, unleashing a fusillade of insults and curses mostly unprintable here. Others chose to light a digital candle by tweeting a candle emoticon on behalf of victims. Some, like @然新奉, demanded to know, “Is there no lower bound to the morals of Chinese officials?”  

In fairness to Yang, it is hard to know just what, if anything, his en situ expression truly signifies. It’s unlikely that he was laughing at the accident itself, and a nervous smile in difficult situations is a rather typical Chinese reaction. A simple smile or laugh is unlikely to say much about Yang’s true feelings toward the deceased, and says nothing about his personal responsibility for the tragedy. Yang  is the product of a perfect Web 2.0 storm in China, in which breaking news, “human flesh search,” memes, and crowd-sourcing combined to whip up a quick maelstrom of netizen ire.

Yet Yang surely deserves some blame. His choices of timepiece are redolent of corruption, and at the very least suggest a lack of self-awareness in a digital age. Yang’s newfound notoriety is yet another needed reminder to Chinese officialdom that all of China–indeed, all of the world–is potentially watching their every move. Just months ago, a meeting of China’s top leadership turned into an embarrassment when netizens circulated photographs of participants wearing Hermes belts and US$2,000 suits. Whatever his ultimate fate, or ultimate culpability, Yang has now learned a hard and valuable lesson.

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David Wertime

David is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation. He first encountered China as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2001 and has lived and worked in Fuling, Chongqing, Beijing, and Hong Kong. He is a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society and an associate fellow at the Truman National Security Project.