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Censorship, Muted Media Coverage, and Public Speculation Follow Guangdong’s Deadly Meizhou-Dabu Expressway Collapse
Censorship, Muted Media Coverage, and Public Speculation Follow Guangdong’s Deadly Meizhou-Dabu Expressway Collapse

Censorship, Muted Media Coverage, and Public Speculation Follow Guangdong’s Deadly Meizhou-Dabu Expressway Collapse

Last week’s collapse of a stretch of the Meizhou-Dabu Expressway in Guangdong province, after a period of heavy rains and extreme weather, killed at least 48 motorists and injured 30. Despite the high number of casualties and intense public interest in the disaster, Chinese state- and commercial-media coverage has been muted, and a number of articles and social media posts on the topic have been deleted. 

In an initial report for The New York Times, Joy Dong and Keith Bradsher described the scene that followed the collapse of a 60-foot segment of the expressway, which passes through a mountainous rural region of Guangdong, in the early hours of May 1:

Photos released after the incident appeared to show that a landslide had begun under two lanes of an expressway that ran along the side of a hill. A wide, brown scar of mud ran down the side of the hill between bright green foliage, leaving a large gap in the expressway.

Vehicles lay jumbled at the base of the hill below the hole, blackened and still smoking from a fire that had burned vigorously during the night, drawing a large number of fire trucks to the area.

[…] A witness told the state news media that he had heard a loud bang and briefly struggled to retain control of his car. He then realized that the road had collapsed right behind him and cars following him had disappeared into the void. [Source

Alyssa Chen of South China Morning Post referenced a number of past local media reports about construction problems and collapses on the Meizhou-Dabu Expressway:

The Meizhou-Dabu highway, which opened on New Year’s Eve 2014, cost 6 billion yuan (US$828 million) to build. The project was beset by technical difficulties because of the mountainous and steep terrain.

Local media reported in 2015 that several tunnels on the highway had been affected by landslides and water penetrating during the construction period.

In April last year, two sections of the highway collapsed because of consistent rainfall, but nobody was hurt, according to local media reports at the time. The area that collapsed on Wednesday is around 44km (27 miles) from last year’s damaged site.

According to Tianyancha, one of China’s biggest databases of corporate information, the highway’s management company has previously been the subject of lawsuits related to construction disputes, and subjected to court-enforced payments seven times amounting to nearly 17 million yuan. [Source]

The Associated Press noted that Vice-Premier Zhang Guoqing had been sent to the site to oversee recovery efforts, reflecting central government worries about managing public opinion and preventing a possible backlash over the high-fatality accident:

The dispatch of Zhang, who is also a member of one of the ruling Communist Party’s leading bodies, illustrates the concern over a possible public backlash over the disaster, the latest in a series of deadly infrastructure failures. References to the collapse, which left a huge gash in the side of a cliff over which the highway was built, largely disappeared from public media on Friday.

[…] One side of the four-lane highway in the city of Meizhou gave way about 2 a.m. on Wednesday after a month of heavy rains in Guangdong province.

Twenty-three vehicles plunged into a deep ravine, some bursting into flames and sending up thick clouds of smoke.

[…] No official word has been issued about any arrests or investigation into the collapse, which followed unusually intense weather, including hailstorms and an April 27 tornado that struck Guangdong’s capital of Guangzhou, killing five and injuring 33. [Source]

CDT Chinese editors have archived a number of articles exploring various aspects of the Meizhou-Dabu Expressway collapse, including the overall paucity of press coverage, the state-media focus on the actions of a few heroic individuals (as opposed to listing the victims, interviewing more eyewitnesses, or delving into the underlying causes of the accident), and the fact that social media content about the disastrous death toll appears to have been deliberately muted, overshadowed by news of a recent online “catfishing” scandal.

Soon after news of the expressway collapse became public, some netizens noted that official state-news agency Xinhua had stopped using the term “accident” (事故, shìgù) and begun using the term “disaster” (灾害, zāihài), implying that somehow the tragedy was unavoidable, and that no one bore ultimate responsibility. 

Two notable censorship incidents occurred on May 6, five days after the accident. The first was the deletion of a May 4 WeChat post from a man named Li Wuchen, whose brother and nephew survived the accident, but who lost three other family members. Li’s post began with a series of probing questions about why so many cars burst into flames, why the death toll was so high, and why the emergency response was so slow, after which he implored the Chinese government to investigate the whole incident thoroughly. His post also included a detailed first-person description of the accident from his brother. A separate post dated May 5 suggested that the authorities might have put some pressure on the family by suggesting that they were under the influence of “hostile foreign forces.” 

Also on May 6, an article from respected news outlet Sanlian Life Weekly was deleted from Life Weekly’s WeChat public account, just two hours after it was posted. The piece by journalists Peng Li, Tan Si, and Xia Jieyi—titled “The Meizhou-Dabu Expressway Collapse, and the Migrant Workers Who Never Reached Their Hometowns”—included background information about the expressway, a major transportation artery between Fujian and Guangdong; interviews with eyewitnesses and survivors; and profiles of some of those who died. Many of the casualties were migrant workers from the economically depressed former mining city of Longyan, in Fujian province, who had found jobs in electronics and machinery factories in Guangzhou or Shenzhen. Because they were not given weekends off, they had been driving through the night to return to their hometowns in time to celebrate the May 1 Labor Day national holiday with their families.

Former journalist and prolific WeChat blogger Zhang Sanfeng contributed two essays (one of which was later censored) to the public discussion about the expressway accident. The first, “The Era of Maintenance is Here,” discusses the many recent accidents involving fairly new buildings and infrastructure, including pipelines, bridges, roads, schools, and more. Zhang argues that in the wake of China’s period of rapid urbanization and large-scale infrastructure construction, it is essential to invest political and financial capital into maintaining this infrastructure:

The spate of engineering-related accidents raises an important issue: large-scale infrastructure must be maintained, which is crucial to public safety.

“Maintenance” is the most essential component of urbanization.

[…] The creation of a city is a temporal art. Demolition and construction are the easy parts, but cities that appeal to our human nature must also be able to withstand the test of time.

While China’s cities and roads are still young, all signs indicate that we have entered the “era of maintenance.”

Maintenance work has a low level of societal visibility, and it does not translate well into “political achievement.” Thus it requires the establishment of new norms, not only in terms of laws and responsibilities, but also in terms of culture. [Chinese]

Zhang Sanfeng’s now-censored second article, archived by CDT, “Focusing on ‘Inner Awakening’ Will Only Lead to New Difficulties,” expands on the concept of “maintenance” from the first article. It criticizes the modern tendency to turn inward—to seek explanations within one’s own self or behavior for phenomena that are political, economic, or societal in nature, seemingly beyond our control. Zhang describes the Meizhou-Dabu Expressway collapse as “a landmark disaster of our time” and reminds readers not to look inward and blame themselves for events that are imposed by external forces:

The most typical reaction is the ordinary netizen who sighs and considers himself lucky: “Good thing my wife drives so slowly. If I had been driving, I would have plunged right into the chasm. I really must remember to drive more slowly in the future.”

This type of subconscious, inner “sigh of relief” reveals the true predicament of our times: we have ceased to interrogate the public sphere or the world outside, and instead search for causality within ourselves, taking it upon ourselves to try to “cope with” the times in which we live.

[…] Maintenance requires organization, frugality, and responsibility: you wouldn’t go to the trouble of building something that you didn’t have the money, time, or will to maintain. Maintaining the things we build is a sign that our communities and our systems are responsible. Without this sense of responsibility, meaningful progress is highly unlikely.

Although I am discussing the maintenance of our cities and public facilities, the same concepts are also applicable to discussing the “maintenance” of ourselves, as individuals.

Each individual “self” needs taking care of, which also requires the aforementioned qualities of “organization, frugality, and responsibility.” We need to pay attention to and participate in public life, empathize with the suffering of others, and find ways to improve society, rather than being completely absorbed in our own “inner awakening.”

The problem may lie with the road, or with the car, or (if those explanations don’t work) even with the rain, but it has nothing to do with the speed at which individuals are driving. [Chinese]

CDT editors have archived a number of other articles, including some that question whether the collapse was caused or exacerbated by shoddy engineering, a lack of bad-weather warnings to motorists, or even flaws in the designs of battery-powered electric vehicles. (Many of the cars that plunged into the chasm exploded upon impact and caught fire.) In the absence of any concrete information from accident-scene investigators, online speculation has been rife.

But despite the high level of public interest, news of the Meizhou-Dabu Expressway collapse was markedly muted on Chinese social media. In part, this was because the news was swamped by posts about a catfishing scandal that had occurred a month earlier. On April 11, a man who went by the online name of “Fat Cat” (胖猫, pàng māo), leapt to his death from a bridge in Chongqing, Sichuan province. The man was reportedly heartbroken after a break-up with his online “girlfriend,” to whom he had given over 500,000 yuan. It later emerged that Fat Cat had been catfished online, scammed out of his money by an online con-artist. In a WeChat post, blogger Xu Peng wrote that it seemed highly suspicious that soon after the expressway accident, 13 of 30 “hot search” topics on Weibo would be about Fat Cat, whose death had occurred several weeks beforehand. It was strange, Xu mused, that the death of one not-at-all-famous individual would trump the deaths of nearly 50 people in a road collapse, mudslide, and fiery crash.

There was also a lot of online criticism about the lack of investigative reporting into the expressway accident. In an article titled “Tragic Accidents and Tear-Jerking Tales,” one blogger urged the media to stop trying to manipulate readers’ emotions and to instead ask probing questions about what factors—poor construction, inadequate government oversight, a shortage of bad-weather warnings—might have contributed to the accident. Social media users and bloggers also noted that there were few profiles of the victims of the accident, and that some of these had been censored. Some commenters contrasted this to the intense, in-depth coverage of 2011’s Wenzhou high-speed train collision, in which 40 people were killed and over 190 injured. A post from Teacher Li on X (formerly Twitter) featured a collage of news magazine covers about the 2011 train crash, and reminded readers that media coverage of disasters “wasn’t always like this.”