BEIJING — It's been two weeks since the devastating double explosion in Tianjin, killing more than 129 people and injuring hundreds of others. Although the investigation is underway, the tragedy has once again exposed China's serious incompetence in managing information dissemination and public opinion. The enormity of this crisis, which social media helped to publicize, seems to be even bigger than the blasts themselves, and it's urgent we learn some vital lessons for our nation in moments like these.
Whether it's news, propaganda or public relations, the cornerstone should be openness. In the face of crisis, openness is the root of credibility, which in turn is what appeals to a public in turmoil.
In 2003, at the beginning of the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), the public health issue devolved into social unrest because of the Chinese government's censorship. Though China pledged more openness in 2008, it has yet to become the norm. Twelve years on, feeble information management of the Tianjin incident once again created a crisis of public opinion.
How rumors happen
A rumor is unconfirmed information spread in society. Where information is lacking, speculation and rumor run rampant, fueled by the ease and immediacy of social media. U.S. pychologist Ralph L. Rosnow says that rumor is a method of public communication that reflects an individual's private hypothesis about how the world works.
Even when rumors are confirmed as untrue, the public doesn't necessarily dismiss them as baseless. In general, the public calls upon the relevant authorities or the media to find the truth, entrusting them with verification. When that doesn't happen, rumors and misinformation proliferate. As Hu Yong, professor at Peking University's School of Journalism and Communication, puts it, rumor "is a form of social protest."
But the way authorities dealt with the rumors propagating about the Tianjin warehouse blasts was to delete online posts or shut down websites. Such measures are only effective if intended to stop criminal activity. They won't work in dealing with public psychology.
Facing the press
By nature, media outlets aren't self-sufficient. They are a collective intermediary between government and the people. Apart from fulfilling basic duties, the media don't possess much interest or overt ambition. Therefore, it should be treated with a neutral eye or, even better, with trust and dignity.
Press conference about the explosion in Beijing on Aug. 20, 2015 — Photo: Yin Dongxun/Xinhua/ZUMA
After disaster struck Tianjin, media outlets from all over the world were caught up in reporting the event. The panicked public needed information.
But when journalists can't obtain honest information, they may in turn report unconfirmed hearsay. Only if we respect the news will we be well served by it. Only if there is a credible and respectable Chinese media can it really serve the country and society, and avoid "creating chaos instead of helping," as the authorities tend to put it.
The Tianjin city government held eight press conferences after the blasts. But five of the eight conferences were so badly executed that they it was like lighting a fuse under Chinese social media. Not only were facts and data lacking, officials also failed to offer insights or to prepare themselves for addressing the media phalanx. And effectively managing a major crisis involves making sure that the public hears from a leader, someone authoritative and in charge. That didn't happen.
Mastering Internet governance
Needless to say, when a disaster occurs there can be hostile forces disseminating nonsense on the Web, ignoring legal responsibilities.
During the first few days after the blasts, rumors suggesting that officials always cover up for one another were rampant on social media, but the relevant departments didn't swiftly or stongly denounce the notion. Nor did they release information disclosing investigative measures. The public was in the dark.
It wasn't until four days later that Premier Li Keqiang arrived in Tianjin and announced that "a complete investigation of accountability is to be conducted and all findings will be publicized."
Two days later, the Tianjin Daily finally published an "alert," which was actually dated news announcing that Yu Xuewei, the principal owner of the Hairui warehouse, and Dong Shexuan, the company's vice chairman, had been taken into custody with eight other staff members on the second day after the blasts. At this point, online discussion about bureaucratic clientelism finally calmed down.
Undoubtedly in order to reverse this negative public opinion, the government has to honor Premier Li's promise to investigate, instead of simply warning citizens against being "led by the nose in negative speculation."
What ought to be remembered is that the focus of public opinion in cyberspace is simply an extension of a contradiction in governance. So-called Internet politics is a mirror of political reality. The achievement of Internet governance can only be fulfilled through real political reform.
Without a determined effort to reform officialdom and without continued improvement to governance and innovation, peace and order are just extravagant wishes.
We look into the mirror to see ourselves properly dressed. But when the image staring back is dishevelled, we can't blame the mirror for being crooked.
*Du Junfei is a professor at Nanjing University and vice director of Zijin media, a think tank.