[Most recent update] Several Tianjin netizens have been arrested for forging fake death toll numbers. Official number is 10 deaths.
This “New York” is no Big Apple. It is Tianjin, a metropolis in northern China and one of the four cities governed directly by China’s central government. Tianjin borders Beijing (like 1.5 hours of drive or 30 minutes of high-speed train) but is a tier 1 city in China that’s seldom heard in foreign media. For the time being, Tianjin is New York because netizens have to find a way to work around China’s powerful censorship.
Burning scene in Jixian, Tianjin
袁鸿n剧场 :”On June 30, The Laide Shopping Mall in ‘New York’ caught fire. The fire started from an ignited air conditioner cable on the first floor of the mall. A shop assistant run up to the fifth floor and reported the fire to the general manager. After sending the shop assistant back to the first floor to have a check, the general manager made a decision. He asked security guards to lock the two entrances on first floor – nobody was allowed to leave until they paid for their purchases. The security guards followed the order and locked the entrances. At the time, none of the customers knew anything about the fire…”
If you see the above story on Sina Weibo, don’t scratch your head. The fire happened at Laide Shopping Mall in Jixian, a county in the northern suburb of Tianjin. So…why netizens need to turn to New York to talk about the story?
If you have been following China news in the past week, you should have heard Shifang, a small town in Sichuan province where an environmental protest turned bloody and resulted in the closing of a planned petrochemical plant. One of the biggest myths of the Shifang protest is that nothing got censored. All Shifang related news, images, Weibo posts are still searchable. One version of the explanation is that Chinese government allowed the discussion of Shifang in order to distract public’s attention from the Tianjin Jixian fire.
Burning scene in Jixian, Tianjin
According to someone who was at the scene, that general manager did order a team to put off the fire, but the harder they tried, the bigger the fire grew. When the manager finally asked security guards to evacuate customers, they can no longer unlock the two entrances. It was the owner of a nearby fruit store who helped them break the entrances from the outside. While most people on the first and second floor managed to escape, others were not so lucky.
According to People.com (the page of the news article was already deleted from People.com, but news summary is still visible from Peope.com’s Weibo account), 24 hours after the fire, there were still people looking for missing family members. Journalists were followed [by police?] after interviewing these people. Local government reported 10 deaths and 16 injured in the accident, but local people have raised doubts about the numbers. And…it’s a VERY big doubt. Words on Weibo is that the fire has resulted in 378 deaths.
“June 30, huge fire at Laide Shopping Mall in Jixian, Tianjin. The case has already been filed to Supreme People’s Procuratorate of Tianjin for investigation. Confirmed deaths were 378….Those who jumped off the building and died were more than 10 and yet the first official press release reported only 10 deaths.”
The above Weibo post has also been deleted already. But last night, a more detailed recount of the story started to circulate online. The long Weibo post includes a few pictures of the burning mall, a name list of confirmed deaths and a description of what has happened. The author claimed that due to “obstacles”, the name list may have inaccuracies. There are over 100 deaths on the list. No matter it’s 378 or 100+, it’s a huge disparity from the government claimed 10. The sad thing is that at this point, the true death toll may never be found out.
Burning scene in Jixian, Tianjin
Which number Chinese netizens choose to believe? 378. No brainer. Hu Xijin, editor of Global Times, a pro-government Engligh-language newspaper in China, commented: “How many deaths were there exactly in the Laide Shopping Mall fire in Jixian, Tianjin? Official number was 10 deaths and 16 injured. Another number of 378 that came out of nowhere was circulated like crazy online. No matter whether such public doubts have grounds or not, [a came-out-of-nowhere number] easily gained more trust than the official number. Once more, it shows how little credibility the government has. A few avatars working together can easily start a serious public trust crisis. Time to carefully look back and think.”
If this Chinese-government-losing-credibility talk is but cliché, 假装在纽约, a famous Weibo account with 160k followers raised another interesting point about the fire: “Tianjin is a weird place. The city is so big and has such a big population, yet it’s been a silent city all these years. Too silent as if never existed. Offical Weibo account of Chengdu (a big city in western China) has 4 million followers. Safe Beijing (official Weibo account of Beijing) has 3 million followers. Tianjin’s official Weibo account has only 150k followers. A small town like Shifang had the entire Weibo turned over. But for this big fire in Tianjin, while non-Tianjin natives were trying hard to find out the truth, Tianjin natives were seldom seen discussing the matter. The official Weibo account of Tianjin didn’t even bother to pretend to care about clearing up rumors.”
[Update] Jixian fire seems no longer a blocked word in China but it’s still a mystery as to how many have died in the accident. Now the topic is one of the Top Trending Topics on Sina Weibo. Tianjin government released the name list of the 10 deaths they confirmed, including 9 staff members of the burn-down depart store and 1 customer. Yet another report from Caixin subtly indicated that the death toll was much more than 10.
According to this Caixin report titled “Tragic Self Rescue at Jixian Fire“, it was a promotion weekend with big sales going on so the store was crowded than usual. Huang Jingsheng and wife decided to take their daughter to the mall for a fun afternoon because their daughter just got her Gaokao scores back. They were on the second floor of the building when the fire started. As soon as Huang detected heavy smokes from below, they rushed down and tried to get out, but only to find that the mall entrance was locked. Huang’s family and several other people run back to the second floor and found a window behind a billboard. Huang broke the window with a high-heal, climbed out and shouted for ladders. After rescue ladders were ready, Huang stood out to pull people out and his wife Liu Fengli stayed inside to help push people through. Together, the couple saves 4 customers, the last one being their daughter. According to Huang, there were more than 10 people waiting to be saved. When he took his daughter to safety and came back for more, none was still standing, including his wife….The next day, his wife’s body was identified by DNA test.
Interestingly, after Tianjin government released the name list, online sentiment started to change. Now many netizens have called for the ones who believed in the 378 number to also provide a name list as counter evidence.
[Thanks to information from Matthew Stinson (Twitter @stinson) who've been to this place, it cannot be said a shopping mall. "Charitable to call the place that burned down a dept. store."]
Video clips at the scene