China's Local Censors Muffle an Explosion

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 1, 2007

TIAN SHIFU, China -- By 9 p.m., the Tianying karaoke bar was jumping. Two co-ed parties were underway, with celebrants drinking and singing. In the bathhouse section, men were soaking in hot tubs and enjoying the company of prostitutes, while other customers tried their luck in a pocket-size gambling den.

That is when the blast went off.

More than 400 pounds of nitrate-based explosives, used in nearby coal mines, ripped through the Tianying compound, reducing it to debris. Many of those partying inside were killed, along with several passersby. The concussion knocked in walls and shredded windows in nearby buildings, sending out sprays of glass shards that injured people gathered with their families to watch television.

What happened that sultry evening of July 4 seemed to be news by anybody's definition. It was the worst disaster in ages to hit Tian Shifu, a raw town of 40,000 residents in the wooded hills of Liaoning province 350 miles northeast of Beijing. But local Communist Party censors decided otherwise. They blacked out news of the explosion, barring papers and television stations here in Benxi county and the nearby provincial capital of Shenyang from investigating what had happened and telling the public about it.

The party's vast propaganda and censorship bureaucracy, although best known for curbing national media, has long exercised its most drastic controls in the newsrooms of China's provincial papers and television stations, such as those that serve the people of Tian Shifu. Unfavorable news -- information that could put local leaders in a bad light in Beijing -- is routinely suppressed by multiple layers of party propaganda officials in towns, counties, cities and provinces.

As a result, Chinese who live in towns or in the countryside -- the majority of China's 1.3 billion inhabitants -- have grown used to living largely in ignorance of what goes on around them, settling for half-truths and daring not to ask for more. This tight control of information has long been an effective tool for the Communist Party to maintain its monopoly on power. It has become even more important in the last two decades as corruption has spread through the party hierarchy, with many city, county and provincial officials eager to hide their association with local entrepreneurs.

"We ordinary people don't know what happened," said a woman who works at Tian Shifu's outdoor food market just behind the destroyed Tianying entertainment complex. "They haven't told us."

In Beijing, officials in the central government of President Hu Jintao have suggested repeatedly that a more open attitude is necessary in the age of cellphones and the Internet. Wang Guoqing, vice minister of the government's national Information Office, told China Central Television last month that local attempts to block coverage of negative news are "naive" given the new technology.

Whether Wang was sincere or not in his call for more openness, the message has not gotten through in China's provincial propaganda offices. At those levels, senior propaganda officials often are on close terms with local newspaper and television editors; they attend the same party meetings and follow similar career paths. Coverage of Tian Shifu's explosion was a case in point.

"The Liaoning Propaganda Department director knows how to control the media," a local reporter said. "He is a former newspaper editor."

'Standard Practice'

One reporter in Shenyang, the provincial capital 50 miles north of here, said he got a call from a friend right after the blast and quickly passed on the news to his editor, hoping to be sent to the scene. But the editor, with reflexes honed by years of censorship, told the reporter to wait and see what the government wanted to do. As a result, no news of the explosion appeared in his newspaper -- or any other -- the morning of July 5.

Party censorship officials in Benxi county and Liaoning province, meanwhile, went into action. After maintaining silence through the night, they authorized a bulletin on the province's official Dongbei News Network Web site at 6:20 a.m. saying an explosion had destroyed the karaoke bar, killing five people. Two hours later, the same short item moved on the official New China News Agency, which meant the rest of the country also learned of the disaster.

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