Chinese news censors are ubiquitous and persistent

By Edward Cody, Washington Post

TIAN SHIFU, China — By 9 p.m., the Tianying karaoke bar was jumping. Two co-ed parties were cooking, 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 passers-by. The concussion knocked in walls and shredded windows in nearby buildings, sending sprays of glass shards that injured people gathered with their families to watch television.

What happened July 4 seemed to be news by anybody's definition. It was the worst disaster in decades to hit Tian Shifu, a town of 40,000 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 newspapers and television stations in Benxi County and the nearby provincial capital of Shenyang from investigating what had happened and telling the public.

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 — most of China's 1.3 billion inhabitants — have grown used to living largely in ignorance of what goes on around them.

The tight control of information has long been an effective tool for the Communist Party to maintain its monopoly on power.

"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 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 "naïve" given the new technology.

The message has not gotten through to 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."

Censorship in action

One reporter in Shenyang, the provincial capital 50 miles north of Tian Shifu, said he got a call from a friend after the blast and quickly passed on the news to his editor. The editor 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, 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.

About the same time, the provincial Propaganda Bureau faxed orders to Liaoning newspapers and TV stations saying they could print and broadcast only what the official agency reported. According to a local journalist who saw the fax, it said no reporters could investigate and newspapers must de-emphasize the story by playing it inside without photos.

At the same time, New China News Agency reporters were ordered to back off the story and relay only what investigating officials issued through the Propaganda Department, according to an Internet account quoting disgruntled reporters. Any other discoveries were to be reported internally, in dispatches that go only to authorized officials, the account said.

Reporters who showed up in Tian Shifu after the blast were escorted by police to another karaoke bar and told they could not continue working, according to a local professional. Asked why no one defied the ban, a reporter said: "Who would dare?"

The afternoon of July 5, Dongbei and the New China News Agency moved new items reporting that the death toll had risen to 25 and that police were investigating. That was the main news dispatch circulated throughout China, broadcast on local television and radio stations and printed in five of the seven main regional newspapers. Two newspapers printed nothing, local journalists said.

"It is precisely because it happened in our backyard that we could not report it," said a reporter in Shenyang.

Bad-news ban

The tight atmosphere was established several years ago, he said, when now Commerce Minister Bo Xilai was governor of Liaoning province and decreed there would be no negative news in Shenyang and Dalian, the province's two main cities.

Li Xianpeng, who heads the news division of the Liaoning provincial Propaganda Department, said "standard practice" is that government investigators should be the only source of information.

"For some social issues, reporters can do their own investigations," Li said. "But in cases of serious incidents, government departments should do the work. If reporters can do investigations on everything, then what is the use of government departments?"

Four days after the blast, the New China News Agency issued a short item quoting investigators saying the final death toll was 25 and the blast occurred because of "spontaneous combustion" of explosives in the building. It offered no further explanation.

Some Tian Shifu residents said they were told that a man who lost heavily in the gaming room had returned to get revenge. Others said the owner's longtime mistress had taken a new lover and might have plotted with him to burn the place down.

The karaoke owner, variously identified as Qu Hua and Qu Yijie, was killed in the blast. His former mistress was taken in for questioning, residents said.

Qu, they said, was known as a wealthy man who had owned wildcat coal mines in the surrounding hills and dealt in wholesale explosives for small coal-mine owners, many of them running illegal operations. His bar was a center for prostitution and gambling, they said, and the bodies of 18 unidentified women were taken from the debris in addition to the 25 reported by authorities. Also among the victims, residents added, were two local policemen.

These accounts, from neighbors and other Tian Shifu residents, were impossible to verify.

Journalists for several big-city newspapers and magazines reported some details of the explosion. The Beijing-based Legal Daily pinpointed stored explosives as the cause of the blast two days before the official report. One aggressive Internet news site,, quoted police as saying they could not exclude the possibility the explosives were detonated intentionally.

But local publications followed the orders to keep silent. Tian Shifu residents said police had warned them not to talk about the explosion even among themselves. As a result, all were promised anonymity in conversations with a foreign reporter.

"Every word could lead to trouble," one resident said when asked to explain what he knew about the blast. "We are not even supposed to gossip about it with our neighbors."

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey