Why I Gagged the Karamay Fire Story – Yang Weiguang (杨伟光)

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The following interview with the former CCTV president Yang Weiguang was originally published in the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekend, to mark Chinese Journalists Day. The segment below, translated by CDT, is about his gagging of news about a fire accident in Xinjiang that killed 288 students. It has been all over the Chinese blogosphere:

Q: When you were the president of CCTV, did you kill any programs due to outside pressure?

Yang Weiguang (杨伟光): I did. At certain times, there’s a delicate question of balancing the “degree.” Otherwise, what do we call censorship? The most typical example was, when some kids died from a fire in Karamay (克拉玛依). I finished the program and thought it was well done and very touching. But I said, there are some passionate emotions in Karamay there. I said, if this program is aired, will it calm down the emotions of the local public, or it will add fuel to the fire? If it’s adding fuel to the fire, then we cannot broadcast it. If it can calm things down and it won’t trigger some unrest, then we can air it. The problem is, the situation over there was red hot, and if you air this, it will anger the parents of the kids and add pressure to local officials. And the reporter of the program wept with a sunken head. Three days later, the Central Propaganda Department issued an official notice, banning reports about the accident. And people said that I did the right thing to kill the program.

Q: What’s the “degree” in your mind in terms of censoring?

A: This “degree” is hard to measure using a ruler. It all depends on the current political climate, people’s mindset, and to what depth the issue should be brought up. This is a lofty leadership art, and a key to success. Political measurement is just like this. On small matters many people can mess things all up, all because they cannot well grasp the “degree,” they may mess things up when proceeding with too much excitement, or with too much caution, but it will be alright if you have a balanced mindset.

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Blogger Zhao Mu’s comments:

A flashback to the event:

On Dec. 8, 1994, students and teachers from seven middle schools and eight elementary schools were performing for Xinjiang provincial education officials at a theater in Karamay. During the show, a fire broke out on a floodlight pole and soon set the main curtain in flames. Suddenly a short circuit killed all the power in the hall and there was nothing but darkness inside. Almost 800 people were trapped and only one out of eight exits were open. Soon, a chaotic stampede, coupled with fire and smoke, killed 325, including 288 students.

[Full Text in Chinese]

Also, according to a report from other official media at that time, a city educational committee worker used a megaphone to address the frightened elementary school students when fire just started: “Children, please stay still and let the officials leave first!” )

[Image: Yang Weiguang, via Zhao Mu’s blog]