Tsinghua Law Professor Censored For Criticizing Self-censorship After Deadly Dormitory Fire

The death of 13 elementary schoolers in a dormitory blaze has sparked outrage across China, not least due to a marked dearth of independent reporting on the disaster. The lack of media coverage of the blaze is highly reminiscent of the 2023 Changfeng Hospital fire in Beijing, which killed 29 but went entirely unreported for eight hours. Discussion of the fire was subject to intense censorship on Weibo. Discussion of this fire, at a private school in rural Henan, has been subject to similar repression. Lao Dongyan—an outspoken and thus frequently censored law professor at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua university—took to Weibo to write of her disgust at the media’s passivity in the face of the death of third-graders. Her post, translated below, was censored: 

When I was an editor, I read reams of censorship directives daily. It was aggravating, yes, but on another level, it was a sign that the media was still trying. 

I imagine it’s different now. Take the recent fire in the city of Nanyang, Henan province. The news broke through a notice issued by the Henan Provincial Fire Department, but not a single Henan media outlet republished the notice. I imagine even the fire department found that strange. 

A so-called “investigation” would entail sending a reporter to the scene of the disaster to question whether fire safety measures were up to code (what a luxury), or at the very least determine how the blaze started, to help prevent similar fires. 

Henan media outlets’ “understandable” decision not to conduct interviews or investigate (and what a pitiful understanding) may have been the product of a censorship directive. But to not even republish the Henan Fire Department’s official notice? This is a step beyond mere “censorship.” It must be a conscious choice, born of internalized habit. 

I bet that the powers that be were also surprised, even disappointed: “You’re not even going to give us the chance to censor you?” 

The first worthwhile information to emerge about the fire seems to have come from the Yangtse Evening Post, “the dormitory door was locked.” The source was identified as a “graduate.” Since the elementary school has only been open for a few years, this would imply that the source is still a child. 

For the only interview on a news story of this magnitude to come from a child might be worth writing down in the annals of journalism history. Even still, that’s more admirable than most other outlets because at least they still have a pulse. [Chinese]

Accidents and disasters are a frequent public opinion flashpoint, as discussed in detail in CDT’s 2017 interview with historian Jeremy Brown. This is particularly true when the victims include children, as in last year’s Qiqihar school gym collapse, the “tofu dregs school construction” scandals after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and the 1994 Karamay theater fire.

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