Huang Xiuli: A Reporter’s Diary of the Shanxi Landslide

A female reporter for the Chengdu Business News, Huang Xiuli, wrote about her heroic coverage of the Xiangfen landslide incident on her blog. Translated by CDT’s Linjun Fan:

I got a late phone call from my boss on Sept. 8.  He said that 26 people had died in a landslide, which took place in Xiangfen of Shanxi province.  I was a bit upset when he asked me to go immediately to the incident scene. I thought that it was not a big news story, because there were only 26 casualties. An accident won’t be classified as a particularly significant incident by the Chinese government unless more than 30 people lose their lives. These kinds of accidents happen all the time in the country. Why bother to go to the place which was notorious for labor abuse in illegal brick kilns?

But I had to obey my boss. I did some research on the incident on the Internet and booked an air ticket from Chengdu to Taiyuan (capital city of Shanxi province). It was midnight when I finished preparing for the trip…

I got up at 5:10 a.m. the next morning to catch my flight, and arrived in Taiyuan at 8:05 a.m.  Xiangfen was several hundred miles away from Taiyuan…I took an express bus. The bus driver dropped me on the roadside of a highway near Xiangfen at 2 p.m. I had to crawl through a hole in barbed wires to get off the highway. My right foot got scraped. But eventually I succeeded in climbing up a road leading to Xiangfen.   

I saw very few people on my way. A driver offered to take me to Taosi Town where the accident took place for a price of 100 RMB. I accepted the deal and got in his car, covered with mud. The driver had heard about the incident in Taosi. He said Taosi was a mining town; actually the accident was caused by a dam collapse, despite state news agency Xinhua’s report that the landslide was caused by heavy rain.

I arrived at Taosi half an hour later. The scene of the incident was located on a hill in a village called Yunhe a few hundred meters up from where I was. It was drizzling. I saw two cops had set up roadblocks at the foot of the slope. I talked with one of them for quite a while, trying to get his permission to go up the hill. But he didn’t budge. He said it was dangerous up there and asked me to contact the Propaganda Department of Linfen City. The other cop was nicer. He helped me to hop into a rescue vehicle which was going to deliver food to survivors above. 

But the rescue team pulled over their car and took a rest shortly after I got in.  The road was buried in mud, both sides showing signs of being washed over by the mudslide. I decided to walk forward by myself. I tried to ask a few farmers about the incident, but they all said they knew nothing about it. 

Finally a farmer surnamed Liu approached me…He told me that the mudslide happened when a reservoir dam owned by a mining company collapsed. Miners had reminded company administrators of the safety risk but their calls went unheeded. There were about 1,000 people in a market under the dam at the time of the collapse.  It was suspicious for Xinhua to say that the accident was caused by a landslide. I also started to question if the casualty figure was really only 26.

I thanked the farmer and continued to forge ahead on the muddy road. A young man came to ask me whether I was a reporter. He urged me to get permission from the command center. A pickup came and he got on it. I entreated him to take me along but he refused. I watched the pickup go away, leaving me behind.

The muddy road came to an end after another twenty minute walk. I saw from a distance that a number of  people were at a village halfway up the hill. I searched for the command center, but people said that it was up on the hilltop. I went to a yard to wash mud off my hands and legs… A few local people came to talk to me. A man in his fifties said that his parents-in-law were selling vegetables at the market when the mudslide occured. He hadn’t heard anything about them yet. They might have died.

He told me a few things about the iron mine named Tashan. It used to be owned by Yangtie Company of Linfen, but was sold to a businessman from Yicheng who was said to have connnections with government officials.  The mine company dumped water, mud, and sand into a deserted reservoir and never cleaned it. That’s why the dam collapsed.

A few other people said that the TV news was wrong in saying that the incident happened after a heavy storm. There was only a drizzle on Sept. 8.

I started to make my initial judgment that the mudslide might have been caused by human wrongdoing. I needed to get the mine owner’s name. I continued to walk forward, but was soon stopped by a second roadblock. Two policemen asked me to call the Propaganda Department. Every Chinese journalist knew that they could get nothing from the Propaganda Department, except for the cliche that the government was doing all it could to provide relief.

…I eventually got to pass the police and found out the name of the mine owner with the help of a local reporter. The information I got earlier was confirmed by a few more farmers: The mudslide was not a natural disaster, but a human-made one. The mine owner, Zhang Peiliang, started to dump water and mud into a deserted reservoir last winter and never did anything to ensure safety.

At that time, Xinhua reported that the mining company’s safety production license and mining permit had both expired. Then how did it manage to employ so many workers and keep drilling for more than a year?  Mr. Zhang must have support from someone in the government.

The farmers I talked to believed that the actual casualty figure was much bigger than the several dozen reported by state-owned media. They said that some farmers had seen bodies buried by government vehicles again after they were dug out. Some farmers got so outraged that they went to negotiate with officials. It was also said later that some villagers had seen more than a hundred dead bodies. The casualty number provided by the government, 34 as of today, was hardly credible.

Finally we arrived at the incident scene, the very place we wanted to see. However, a number of cops, armed police, and officials barred our way as soon as they caught sight of us.

“You should talk to the Propaganda Department, ” they said. “But we were told to talk to people in the Command Center,” we said.  They refused to allow us to go in.

A few hours later a director of Propaganda Department came over and checked our credentials. “I’ve never heard of your newspapers,” he said. “Just read what Xinhua reported. Their reporters are doing interviews inside,” he added as he immediately walked away.

At that time, I saw a few people dressed like reporters walking around inside the scene, with cameras and camcorders in their hands.  Unlike us they had no mud on their clothes. Obviously they didn’t walk up the hill on muddy roads as we did.

Luckily we got a chance to escape when the officials were not paying attention to us. With the help of a few farmers we climbed up the hill and went near the collapsed dam.

The submerged market was located two terraces below us. We could hear the noisy sound of lift trucks digging there in search of the dead.  There were at least 1,000 people in the market when the mudslide washed down from a few dozen meters above on the hill. There were also many people who lived in the houses surrounding the market. They could barely escape when the place was devastated by mud within a few minutes.

A miner who helped me climb up the hill lived near the market. He went away to Linfen the night before the accident. When he got back after getting the sad news in the morning, he could find nothing left of his home.  His nieces, who were doing business inside the market, had both been buried under the mud…

I could imagine what Xinhua reported on the case that day. Actually I also want to know what the government is doing to provide rescue and relief; and I also want to know how officials will respond to farmers’ questions on the real number of casualties, because the information given by the farmers was not necessarily truthful. However, officials believed that reporters like us were there only to make trouble. They didn’t bother to talk to us.

I think what we’ve got was quite credible — the casualties could be as many as 1,000.  They wouldn’t be able to deny it as long as my story got published the next day. It’s a common practice for officials to conceal the real casualty figure.

I finished writing the story at around 9:40 p.m.  I am proud of myself that I wrote more than 2,000 words in two hours. I eventually had time to take a shower. I saw mud all over my body when I looked at myself in the mirror. There were even two drops of mud on my face. Why didn’t anyone mention that to me during dinner?

After the shower I also found that there were seven or eight scrapes and cuts on my feet and legs. I couldn’t remember when I got them, except for the one scape I got when I crawled through the barbed wire next to the highway.

I don’t know whether the story will be published tomorrow. If my boss gets scared (by its political sensitivity), it wouldn’t show up on the Internet. It wouldn’t have any influence if that happens. And all my striving in reporting the story would be futile. Alas, a reporter in China has no choice but to accept his fate.

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