State-run news agencies have provided wall-to-wall coverage of the collapse halfway across the world, with daily updates on the death toll and multiple editorials deriding the U.S. government’s “sluggish” response. A hashtag started by Chinese news broadcasters saying that American citizens were losing faith in an “American-style” rescue effort garnered over 21 million views on Weibo. On Sunday, China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying fired off a tweet on the condo collapse — her third in a week — noting that a cat named Binx was rescued from the rubble in Surfside.
When, on Monday, a hotel in the Chinese city of Suzhou abruptly collapsed, killing at least 17 people, some Chinese users were quick to point out the irony online, citing other recent safety lapses in the country. But pro-government leaders and the party faithful doubled down, comparing the efficiency of the American and Chinese rescue efforts.
Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution specializing in China, said he has been taken aback by how insensitive top Chinese officials have been in their remarks on the Surfside disaster. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Chinese leaders were among the first to offer condolences to the United States, he said. The reaction from Hua and others, he added, appears to reflect the country’s broader transition to a more aggressive foreign policy.
“There was a certain humanitarian instinct that used to inform both countries’ diplomacy,” Hass said. “It’s really striking to think about how far we’ve traveled from those moments into this one.”
One Weibo user lamented the hostilities: “I’m speechless. … In this world, are we only left with power politics between major countries?”
Within China, coverage of the Surfside collapse has largely eclipsed news of other local disasters.
In June, a gas pipeline explosion in a Hubei market killed 25 people and injured more than 100. A few days later, a seven-story building collapsed in Hunan province, leaving five people dead. On June 25, a day after the Surfside disaster, a fire tore through a martial arts school in Henan province, killing 18 students — most of them children.
These incidents were heavily censored on Chinese social media platforms amid calls from President Xi Jinping to maintain “political stability” in the lead-up to the Chinese Communist Party’s 100th anniversary celebrations in early July. The Henan fire didn’t make the front page of the provincial Henan Daily newspaper or break the top 50 topics discussed on Weibo.
Hu Xijin, editor of the state-run Global Times, said in an editorial on the Surfside collapse that “the US’ rescue capability with emergency situations is much worse than people think.” Hu, who has sparred with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), acknowledged the Henan fire but said that unlike the United States, China has a “resolute attitude to hold those who are responsible to account.” Four municipal leaders in Henan, he added, had already been removed from their positions.
When part of the Siji Kaiyuan hotel in Suzhou collapsed, Hu said on Weibo that at least the Chinese rescue effort was efficient, unlike the “unacceptably sluggish” response in Florida. As images of Chinese rescuers in orange jumpsuits flooded the nightly news, others on social media echoed his view.
“Based on China’s rescue efficiency, the situation will be cleaned up soon, and there will be no archaeological rescue jokes like in Miami,” wrote one blogger with a million followers.
American officials have said that the response team in Surfside, which includes rescuers from Israel and Mexico, faced inclement weather and safety hazards when it began, including a persistent fire among the debris. Claims from Chinese newspapers that survivors waited 16 hours before response teams arrived are false, said Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett. He was at the site a half-hour after the collapse, he added, and by that time, rescue operations were already underway.
“It was a series of impossible situations on top of an impossible situation,” Burkett said. “And still, every one of those search-and-rescue teams poured their heart and soul into it.”
There isn’t an official database tracking building collapses in China, but there have been at least two other major incidents since 2020 began. In March last year, 29 people died when the Xinjia Express Hotel, a covid-19 quarantine facility in the city of Quanzhou, fell apart. Government investigators later said that hotel owners had added new stories without notifying authorities, causing the building to exceed its approved weight. In August, the ceiling of a restaurant in Shanxi caved in, killing 29 people.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say” that what happened in Surfside wouldn’t happen in China, said Aidan Chau, a researcher at the labor rights group China Labour Bulletin, which tracks workplace accidents in the country, including post-construction building collapses. According to the Bulletin’s accident map, there have been more than 3,400 workplace accidents resulting in deaths or injuries since 2015.
In the wake of the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Chau said, Chinese officials acknowledged that shoddy construction and corruption contributed to the collapse of about 7,000 classrooms and the deaths of thousands of schoolchildren.
“This kind of practice continues to happen in new construction sites,” Chau said, especially in inland provinces where contractors are less familiar with safety codes and often rely on secondhand or cheap equipment.
Adam Mayer, a California architect who used to work in China, said both countries will need to invest in more rigorous safety and maintenance checks as building infrastructure ages. “There’s more commonalities here than differences,” he said.
Some Chinese citizens agree, though their voices have been largely drowned out by pro-government actors.
“The discourse on here is getting more and more disgusting,” one user said Monday on Weibo. “Human life is so important, why don’t we spend this time praying, trusting the rescuers? Instead, we have to compare this and that.”
“What’s awkward about it?” another user retorted. “People can pray for the people who are trapped while feeling in awe for how good China is.”