Late on Tuesday, a 6.5 magnitude earthquake hit Sichuan’s Jiuzhaigou County, killing at least 19 people and forcing the evacuation of some 60,000. A leaked directive ordered domestic media to follow state news agency Xinhua’s lead in reporting on the disaster—the agency has hailed the government-led response as a demonstration of China’s national strength, as well as "efficiency, strong resolution and human warmth." Images or video likely to incite panic were prohibited, and media workers instructed to monitor public opinion and "promptly delete harmful information." The incident is the latest in a series of disasters in the seismically active region including the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake, which killed around 80,000 people. In June this year, a landslide in the Sichuan village of Xinmo left around 100 dead or missing. Another media directive ordered the deletion of a Caixin article on locals’ unheeded warnings about the unstable mountainside above them.
The earthquake struck just ahead of the anniversary on Saturday of the devastating Binhai explosions near Tianjin, which killed 173 people in August 2015 and triggered a wave of censorship as well as a defiant burst of independent reporting. These similar attempts to control information reflect broader parallels in Chinese authorities’ handling of accidents and natural disasters, which are grouped together with protests under the official designation túfāshìjiàn 突发事件, or "sudden incidents." With all three, the official response often focuses on immediate "stability maintenance"—managing news, blame, and public anger—rather than on fundamentally tackling underlying issues such as corruption. Even when heads roll, suspicions linger that the goal has as much to do with appeasing the public as addressing root causes.
Simon Fraser University’s Jeremy Brown has studied the history of accidents and their official handling in the Maoist and post-Mao eras. "Accidents in today’s China," he wrote in a chapter of Perry Link and Richard P. Madsen’s 2013 volume "Restless China,” "bring social tensions and anxieties to the fore. They heighten grievances about inequality and unfairness. They exacerbate feelings of insecurity and helplessness." He agreed to discuss these incidents, and their impact, handling, and political sensitivity, with CDT.
China Digital Times: You write about a repeating pattern: the Karamay fire in 1994 and another auditorium fire in Xinjiang in 1977 which killed 694 people, mostly children; or the 2015 Yangtze capsize disaster and the similar Ganzhong incident, which killed 93 in 1974. Even with incidents that aren’t directly parallel, there are similarities in responses, in information control: for example, the 1975 Henan floods, in which as many as 230,000 died after a series of dam collapses, and the Binhai explosions. Do you think there’s been progress?
Jeremy Brown: I think there has been, actually. China’s overall injury death rate decreased by 17% between 1987/88 and 2005/06. So that’s progress. From the 80s to the 2000s, we see the overall injury death rate going down. It went down by 25% among urban males, 45% among urban women, 30% among rural women, but for rural men it went up by 6%.
Big accidents happen everywhere. The hope is people learn from them, regulations get changed, and you avoid them in the future. The problem is, China actually has a lot of great regulations, and the whole Communist system that I describe in my chapter about accident reports and safety was supposed to be different from what was in place before 1949. That was the “evil” capitalist system that exploits workers, not paying attention to their safety. The problem is that safety is just one part of the agenda of a factory manager or a factory Party secretary or any official for that matter. You’ve got this personal enrichment incentive that you see in almost every accident: that’s what you see in Tianjin with the explosions. And you have incentives to cover up and not get caught. That’s the option that a rational official is going to take. That still hasn’t been solved, really.
CDT: Do you have any recommendations?
JB: It’s the same problem that you see in so many areas of Chinese society with corruption, where without a truly independent monitoring body or without some external auditor, I don’t see how it’s going to get fixed. Corruption in general, or this particular aspect of corruption and covering things up, lack of transparency … it’s hard for me to see how that’s going to work in a one-party system.
CDT: Speaking of corruption, you wrote about Zhou Yongkang and his role in the response to the Karamay Fire. Could you describe that briefly?
JB: Zhou Yongkang was a top official in the state petroleum company (CNPC), and Karamay is a company town, so CNPC had a large role in governing that town and in dealing with the aftermath of a terrible fire that killed more than 300 people in an auditorium in 1994. You see a transition in trying to handle the aftermath of the accident. The first reaction was figuring out what went wrong, assigning blame, compensating the victims, learning from it. The second reaction was stability control, and targeting the families of the dead children as potential threats to stability. Zhou Yongkang was the guy who came in and issued orders to put stability as the number one priority. And that meant not giving in to the demands of the parents, who then became targeted as troublemakers and came under surveillance themselves. Talk about adding insult to injury. Their children died in a terrible way, they’re seeking justice, and then they’re seen as a threat by the regime. The worst part of that speech that he gave to a hall of officials was when he said, "I believe that all of the little boys and girls in their graves would hope for Karamay to be stable [….] Be steadfast in opposing whatever words and deeds are not conducive to stability." To invoke the dead children as a means to targeting their parents as possible enemies of the Communist Party to me was so insulting and disturbing that it made me really upset.
It was only a few years after Tiananmen Square, and you see the same thing with the Tiananmen Mothers: their kids died, and the parents were then targeted as threats to the regime. And he’s part of that.
CDT: Did he have a related track record before this, or did the incident set the tone for his later leadership of the whole national security apparatus?
JB: I don’t have any evidence of what he was doing before that moment in terms of stability control, but I wouldn’t be surprised if his management of the volatile situation was seen as a positive by officials higher up the food chain … it may have been an ingredient in his success and in his promotions after that. He continued along those lines in a major way, including targeting Falun Gong.
[…] There’s no incentive to be tender and compassionate toward accident victims. The incentive is to keep the compensation down, as low as you can, you keep people from protesting, you keep them from linking up and organizing, and if you successfully do that, then that’s "good handling" of an accident. The word "handling", chǔlǐ 处理, is what is done after an accident …. It’s a stand-in for "make it go away," basically.
In all the documents, "we’re going to learn from this bloody lesson" is a phrase that comes up in almost all of them. "Something’s been awash in blood, and we’re going to learn from this bloody incident so that it doesn’t happen again in the future because of these grave losses that have been caused to state property, or to the image of the Chinese Communist Party." Those are the phrases that show up again and again.
CDT: In learning these lessons, are they going for root causes, or just looking for scapegoats? There’s a quote in your chapter from a Cultural Revolution-era accident reporting form, a category for "deaths and injuries attributed to political accidents caused by class enemies committing sabotage."
JB: Sabotage was a real concern in the 1950s and 60s. The first fear was that spies sent by Chiang Kai-shek might try to cause big problems with major infrastructure projects, so there were Departments of Economic Protection in every Public Security Bureau. There were agents and secret plants in factories watching to see if people were going to sabotage.
And in other cases cited in a booklet about counterrevolutionary sabotage—that’s a whole category of accidents, "sabotage accidents"—the conclusion was "this guy was mad because we killed his dad." There was actually this phrase, shāfǔzhīchóu 杀父之仇, meaning "he hates us because we killed his dad." In one case, "this person has shafuzhichou toward us, so he put a bunch of arsenic in the soup, and massacred ten cadres in the village." Or caused an explosion and killed officials. These atrocities happened in the 1950s, and more recently, we see an interesting hint of something similar with the Binhai explosion of 2015. I read a piece by Willy Wo Lap Lam saying that Xi Jinping thought the Binhai disaster was an act of sabotage. Xi thought that somebody wanted to make him look bad or cause a distraction before the military parade … so somebody had actually engineered this terrible disaster. If indeed he was looking around for scapegoats, that’s following the same pattern that we’ve seen in the Communist Party’s knee-jerk reaction to accidents.
CDT: Another of these historical mirrors: you wrote that the firefighters who turned up at the Karamay fire had no water in their trucks and no tools to break down the doors. And then the training and equipment of firefighters was a hugely sensitive issue in Tianjin as well.
That was a problem in the 90s, and it’s still a problem today. It’s really sad that firefighters are victims … major victims, the main victims in the Binhai explosion, because they were not properly trained and they didn’t have the right equipment, and they rushed in there heroically. And the same thing with the Shanghai high-rise fire, where there’s a realisation, "wait a minute, we don’t actually have ladders that go high enough."
CDT: What are the similarities between the handling of accidents and natural disasters?
JB: I think there are differences and similarities. The difference is that there is a honeymoon period after a natural disaster where the public assumption is "this was a natural disaster, and it couldn’t have been avoided, and we need help." So people judge local officials and central government in terms of what kind of assistance comes in and the handling of the aftermath. That honeymoon can be short, depending on how quickly people realise that actually, the severity of a natural disaster, and who’s hit by a natural disaster, depends on the infrastructure around them. So that was why in Sichuan, the shoddy schools and the nicely built government buildings became a major part of that story, because of the inequality in how construction projects valued human life. That was what it came down to, and that was why it became such a scandal. And then there was the question of what if human activity triggered the earthquake?
There was a similar issue as early as 1975 with the Zhumadian dam failure: "that’s a typhoon, what can we do? We can’t control that." But it was a failure of infrastructure triggered by a predictable event. So it’s really hard to separate natural disasters from accidents, because you see the patterns in inequality …. Human decisions really affect who’s affected, who gets hit hard or hit worse by a natural disaster.
The Party’s definition of tufashijian includes three things: accidents, natural disasters, and protests, or political disturbances. The Party has decided to put these three things together. I think that’s also a case of "lesson not learned" from all the targeting of families and accident victims that we’ve seen throughout the Mao period and continuing into today. There’s an automatic assumption by putting those things together that these are threats to the stability of the Communist Party, and so they need to be handled in the same way. Instead of being transparent, or treating accident victims compassionately, the impulse is to cover it up, and target them for surveillance and crackdowns. Because that’s what you do to a protest, right?
I think there’s a recognition by putting natural disasters in the same category as accidents that the Party’s going to be judged based on its handling of it, and that people are going to make the links between infrastructure and casualty patterns.
CDT: How much has social media changed things?
JB: It makes it so much harder to cover up an accident. It makes it possible for people with smartphones to be the first people to get the news out and let the story get shaped in a way that’s not immediately subject to control; quickly, but not immediately. And it actually gives editors who are interested in being good journalists and getting information out a little bit of leeway in reporting things. Because the news is already out there, and so they’re not the first ones breaking the news and breaking rules about it.
But it also exacerbates the inequality that we see between urban and rural, because the people with huge numbers of followers and the people with the phones that are equipped to do it are overwhelmingly in urban areas. And so that’s why the urban accidents get noticed and the rural ones don’t get noticed as much. People talk about the things they think affect them, and that might affect them. This definitely reinforces urban anxiety about accidents, because the journalists overwhelmingly live in cities and report on cities, and so do the people who circulate the news and repost.
Weixin [WeChat] is interesting. We don’t quite know how Weixin is affecting things. The transition from Weibo to Weixin, I don’t know what it’s going to do. It’s closed: there are closed groups now, on Weixin, so you can assume that people are talking about a lot of different things and circulating a lot of different things, but it means that for general observers who are trying to get a sense of who’s paying attention to what and reporting on what, it’s much harder to know.
CDT: Your book chapter describes a rural-urban divide in the way that accidents get handled and the public reaction to them. You mention that there was a sleeper bus fire in Henan that killed one more person than the Wenzhou high speed rail crash the same week. And again with the Binhai explosions, there was a major landslide in Shanxi that same week which left more than 60 people dead or missing, but attracted a much smaller fraction of the attention.
JB: If you look at the numbers of accident deaths, rural men are the most at risk from accidents in China, or at least were when the numbers came out a decade ago. And urban people are actually less at risk. In 2006, the rural death rate from injury is approximately twice that in urban areas. But because the urban ones are so high profile, I think urban people are more anxious about it, and more worried about it. So you have this weird disconnect between visibility and actual risk.
There were waves of different types of accidents hitting rural people in the 50s and 60s, and then 70s. In the late 50s and early 60s, electrocution was a big cause of accidents. People didn’t know how to handle electricity, there weren’t enough trained electricians. So there were these terrible chain reactions where somebody was getting electrocuted and the rescuers also got electrocuted, because they didn’t know not to touch the person or to get close. That hit rural areas hard, and it didn’t hit urban areas in the same way, because electricity was already in many cities.
Pesticide’s another big one in the countryside, more in the late 60s and early 70s, where pesticides and fertilizer came in in a major way, but there was not a whole lot of knowledge about how to safely use it. It’s seen as a panacea, as something that’s going to really help increase crop yields, and so there’s major overuse of pesticides. And it was sitting around, accessible to children, accessible to people who in the middle of depression or rage might drink it. That’s still a problem in rural China.
So you definitely see patterns, and rural China ends up getting hit hard in these patterns.
CDT: Can we talk about your research process for this? How did you come to focus on accidents in the first place?
They’re in the news a lot, and it seems like tensions get played out and exposed in the aftermath of an accident, so I thought, well this can’t be new. But actually, if you just read the People’s Daily, there were no accidents in China between about 1956 and the 1980s. There was a bit of reporting in newspapers in the early 1950s, and then it just stopped. There were a few mentions of accidents in capitalist countries, as proof that capitalist countries exploited their workers and didn’t care about safety. But there were actually no accidents in China openly reported for the rest of the Mao period. That then became very interesting to me: I like to uncover things that have been concealed, that’s one impulse that I feel is important for studying the Mao period. Because if we just rely on officially published documents, we’re not getting a full picture.
The other reason was to get away from studying the Mao period as a series of political campaigns or movements, as a story of land reform, suppressing counterrevolutionaries, Anti-Rightist movement, Great Leap Forward, Four Clean-Ups, Cultural Revolution …. That’s useful and interesting and important to know, but I got a very strong sense from talking to people in China for my first project on rural-urban difference that that was not the way that people remember their lives. They lived their lives in terms of the same kind of milestones that people anywhere would use as ways of remembering their past: getting married, kids getting born, work, school, moving around from one city to another.
I’m inspired by Gail Hershatter’s work, especially her book "The Gender of Memory." She writes about thinking about the last 50 or 60 years of Chinese history in a way that’s not following "campaign time." Because people’s lives didn’t necessarily follow campaign time. So accidents, I thought, were one of the best ways to get away from campaign time, because somebody could get hit by a bus whether it’s the Cultural Revolution or not. A boat could sink whether it’s the Cultural Revolution or not. That political context ends up being really important: incentives to ignore safety regulations become quite strong during huge production drives like the Great Leap Forward, so you see major accidents then, and safety gets more attention during quieter times. So you can’t totally ignore the political context: it’s part of the context that explains the patterns.
I’m most interested in the aftermath. Because the Communist Party has to deal with the aftermath of an accident, and the family is forced to deal with the aftermath of an accident whenever it happens, whether it’s the Cultural Revolution or not. Looking at the handling of accidents is a way to get at everyday life concerns that is not tied to this conventional political narrative.
CDT: In looking past the official documents, where did you turn instead?
JB: Well, you still need official documents. There are all kinds of regulations and rules, and requirements to report on accidents. In the archives there are thousands and thousands of accident reports, letters from victims and family members, finger-pointing between different parts of the bureaucracy …. A letter from a family member that’s held in an archive, that’s good because it provides a picture of grassroots concern. It’s somebody interacting with the state, with the bureaucracy, wanting something or complaining about something. The state-created documents are really interesting and useful as well. And the rules themselves are interesting and important to know about as well because they’re part of the context.
I put together interviews. Basically anybody you talk to who was alive in the Mao period, if you ask them, "have you ever experienced an accident? Do you know anybody who has? Have you ever seen an accident?" … you almost always get "a hit," because people were sent down to the countryside, they were sent to work in mines, they remember being told to pay attention to safety, and having to report about safety. But then they also show me scars, or missing fingers, or have stories to tell about getting shocked, or worse. Family members dying in fires, or in accidents that could have been prevented. So when I first roll out to people in China that I’m working on the history of accidents, and the social history of accidents, and the aftermath of accidents, they think that’s the weirdest thing they ever heard of. And then the next thing they say is, "but let me tell you what happened to me, let me tell you this story …."
CDT: How accessible have you found the archival materials?
JB: Well, I sort of use my instincts and start with the ones that I know will let me in the door. Shanghai and Beijing are the two that I went to, and Shanghai was great the first time I went in 2009. And other people have gone and noticed things and helped me get them from Shanghai. Beijing was pretty good too, when I went, I think the next year. You’re not allowed to photocopy anything that has somebody’s name in it, which is frustrating, because I’m really interested in names and people. If I write a page that doesn’t have somebody’s name on it—even if it’s a pseudonym, at least it’s a person; you’re humanizing the story—then I’m not happy with my writing. So that’s a hurdle … "well, what if they’re still alive? We have to protect their privacy. What if their children come and get mad at us?" The archivists are concerned about risk.
But then I can go to the flea markets and get all kinds of files. This whole batch here is a bunch of traffic accident reports from the late 70s and early 80s, from a suburb of Tianjin, that somehow made their way to a market where I was able to buy them. That’s great.
CDT: You mentioned that there was a ban on the sale of archival materials in flea markets?
JB: Every time I go I hear stories from the peddlers and from the merchants, that "aw, yeah, somebody came through here and they said we’re not allowed to sell this stuff anymore." And then they take these regular, safe books off the top of the pile and show that they still have the files underneath them, or they say that they have them at home. It’s a cat and mouse game ….
It seems like grassroots documents are not getting released anymore. … There was so much that came out in the late ’90s and early 2000s, which is when I was there starting to do this kind of research. They’re still in circulation, because so much came out at that point when there was really lax control. Gradually the loophole has been shut. So material is still out there, but it’s expensive, and it’s harder to find. So it’s harder now. It would be hard to be a grad student right now, because the archives are, from what I’m hearing, really hard to get access to even for Chinese scholars, and the flea market research is hard to do.
CDT: What sort of timeframe has that closing up happened in?
JB: It has gotten progressively worse each year since 2005 in terms of the richness of what you could get at the flea market … but that’s the bigger cities. I’ve heard from people going to smaller towns and smaller cities that haven’t really been tapped yet, that you can still get really good stuff.
But the archival closing seems to have been since 2012 or 2013, of archives saying "sorry, we’re digitizing, so we can’t let you in at all," or "sorry, we’re renovating, we can’t let you in at all." And these are euphemisms, just trying to get you to go away.