Wednesday, August 01, 2007
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 1, 2007; Page A10
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
"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."
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.
China's Local Censors Muffle an Explosion
At about the same time, the provincial Propaganda Bureau faxed orders to Liaoning
newspapers and television 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 on their own and newspapers must de-emphasize
the story by playing it inside without any 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.
A group of reporters who showed up in Tian Shifu anyway the morning 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 tried to defy the ban,
a reporter answered: "Who would dare?"
In the early afternoon of that same day, Dongbei and the New China News Agency moved
new items reporting that the death toll had risen to 25 and that police were
investigating the cause of the blast. That was the main news dispatch circulated
around China, broadcast on local television and radio stations and printed in five
of the seven main regional newspapers. Two of the newspapers printed nothing at all,
local journalists said, one in protest and the other because editors were eager to
display zeal in implementing party directives.
"It is precisely because it happened in our back yard that we could not report it,"
said a frustrated reporter in Shenyang. "It was impossible for a newspaper or
television station to investigate this news. Everybody knew clearly they couldn't
report on it."
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" in such cases is that government investigators
should be the only source of information. It was in that light, he said, that local
publications and stations were told to stick with the New China News Agency reports
relaying what officials said.
"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
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
A 46-year-old man who identified himself only as Xie said he and some companions
enjoying the bathhouse that night smelled heavy smoke just before the explosion.
They all ran for the exit, he said, because the smoke was filling the room.
"I was the last one," Xie added from his sickbed in the First People's Hospital of
Benxi, the county seat. "As I got to the door, it went off," leaving him with
multiple injuries to his head and legs.
Xie said he had no idea what set off the blast. But other Tian Shifu residents said
they were told that a man who lost heavily in the gaming room had returned to get
revenge. Still 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, known as "the kid" and variously identified as Qu Hua and Qu
Yijie, was killed in the blast. His former mistress was taken in for questioning by
police, the residents noted.
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 karaoke bar was a center for prostitution
and gambling as well as singing, 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, they added, were two local policemen.
These accounts, from neighbors and other Tian Shifu residents, were impossible to
verify. But many playing cards were seen lying about the debris after the site had
been bulldozed flat, and employees of the nearby Chuang Ye Department Store said
eight of its saleswomen were among the victims.
Journalists for several big-city newspapers and magazines, out of the local censor's
grasp, reported some of these details. The Beijing News identified Qu, for instance,
and 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,
http://www.163.com, quoted police as saying they could not exclude the possibility
that the explosives were detonated intentionally.
But local publications followed the orders to keep silent. In addition, 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
At stake, they said, was a compensation payment of up to $26,000 that the government
was offering to victims' families. But in any case, they added, it would be
dangerous getting on the wrong side of the police in this small country town.
"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