As Tianjin residents struggle to find answers, China has imposed heavy restrictions on independent media trying to cover the deadly explosions that rocked the port city. DW spoke to China expert Isabel Hilton.
Initial critical reporting of the August 12 explosions at a hazardous goods storage facility in the port of Tianjin has led Chinese authorities to gradually crack down on independent media coverage of the blasts, which claimed the lives of at least 114 people.
It all started just a day after the incident when the Chinese government announced a ban on any independent reports, analysis or live broadcasting on the subject. Instead, all media were to only republish reports by state-run news agency Xinhua, the People's Daily Online and Tianjin Northern Online.
Days later, the State Internet Information Office said they had shut down more than 360 social media accounts and 50 websites for "violating the administrative regulations." And according to Foreign Correspondents' Club in China, at least five journalists were interrupted during broadcast by either unknown people or the police.
Although Chinese PM Li Keqiang recently ordered the swift release of information about the Tianjin explosions, no official explanation has been given as to what caused the massive blasts. It is believed that 700 tons of sodium cyanide - a toxic substance that can become combustible when it mixes with water - was stored in the warehouse in amounts that violated safety regulations. The explosions have triggered fears of contamination and led to the evacuation of buildings within a three-kilometer radius of the warehouse in the Chinese port city southeast of Beijing.
Hilton: 'China's information policy is directed first at protecting the interests and image of the Communist Party'
Isabel Hilton, a China expert and founder and editor of the non-profit organization chinadialogue, talks in a DW interview about the government's information policy on the latest disaster and why Chinese authorities usually shut down public discussions in times of emergency.
DW: How do you assess the government's information policy on this disaster?
Isabel Hilton: A couple of years ago, the Chinese government received an advisory report on environmental communications that included a section on best practices for environmental emergencies. This advised that communications in an emergency should be proactive, as complete as possible, open and timely. Unfortunately, this has not been in evidence here.
In any emergency there are things that are not known, and this should also be communicated. But the essential information required to help people avoid further harm should be swiftly ascertained and communicated. There should have been a single, comprehensive emergency communications center that was gathering information from all relevant agencies and disseminating it swiftly.
The lack of such a response generates suspicion, rumor and mistrust. It is too early to be precise about the role of the company or of officials, but clearly rules were not observed in the planning and operations of this warehouse. Of more immediate concern to the affected people is the level of toxins released and the fate of the missing.
Why has China's Internet watchdog suspended or shut down websites and social media accounts that have dealt with the disaster?
Unfortunately, the standard official response to such emergencies is censorship. There is a fear that public anger will grow and the authorities seem to believe that shutting down discussion is the best way to contain an unpredictable situation.
What does this disaster reveal about China's information policy when such disasters occur?
China's information policy is directed first at protecting the interests and image of the Communist Party and its leaders. Serving the public comes a very poor second.
Do you think that bloggers could play an important role in a chaotic situation such as the one caused by the Tianjin catastrophe?
Digital communications can play a helpful role in emergencies as we have seen in other situations where such communications are not censored. In emergency situations, rapid reports of local conditions can be vital to saving lives, and crowd sourcing such information is a useful aid to overworked officials.
What does this disaster reveal about how dangerous chemicals are stored in China?
Most of the chemical industry in China is an accident waiting to happen, if it has not already happened. Poor regulation, lax enforcement and corruption have lethal effects in such industries.
Even where nothing as dramatic as this has taken place, there are toxic and lethal legacies from un-policed discharges that will take years to clean up. If Tianjin is to have any good effects, it would be that the government finally takes hold of the chaos around its chemical industry.
Isabel Hilton is a London-based writer and broadcaster. She is founder and editor of chinadialogue, an independent, non-profit organization based in London, Delhi, Beijing and San Paolo, which focuses on the environment, especially in China.