When Tragedy Strikes in China, the Government Cracks Down on Grief

Many innocent lives were lost to tragic events in China in the past month. So far we haven’t learned a single name of any of them from China’s government or its official media. Nor have we seen news interviews of family members talking about their loved ones.

Those victims would include a coach and 10 members of a middle-school girls volleyball team who were killed in late July when the roof caved in on a gymnasium near the Siberian border. Despite an outpouring of public grief and anger around the country, the government never released their names. Social media posts sharing their names and tributes to their lives were censored.

Then there were the people — probably dozens, possibly hundreds — who died in severe flooding in northern and northeastern China in recent weeks. It was the most serious flooding in the countryin decades. Posts about the casualties, and the hardships people endured, were censored.

In 2015, it was the 442 people who perished when a cruise ship sank on the Yangtze River, and last year, the 132 who died in a plane crash in southwestern China. And of course the many, many people who have died from Covid and remain unaccounted for.

In the past decade or so, the Chinese government has tightly controlled how tragedy is reported by the news media and portrayed on social media. Official media seldom discloses victims’ names. Family members run into trouble with the authorities if they mourn the dead publicly or loudly. This kind of emotional repression on a mass scale reflects the party’s expectation of the Chinese people: to play only one role, that of the obedient and grateful subject, no matter what happens to them.

After a gym roof collapsed in Qiqihar, the government never released the names of the 11 people who died. Social media posts sharing their names and tributes were censored.Credit…Zhang Tao/Xinhua, via Associated Press

“After every tragedy, we always hope to find the names of all the victims so we can silently read them in our hearts and spread them in public,” an online commentator wrote about the deaths of the volleyball team. “Unfortunately, this humble wish is often difficult for us to fulfill.” The article was censored on a news portal subject to Beijing’s rules.

There’s a reason for the enforced omission and silence. In the view of the Chinese Communist Party, its rule should be celebrated no matter the circumstances. Victims of public tragedies are inconvenient facts highlighting that not everything under the party’s watch is glorious. Their deaths are testimony of its failure.

The government’s determination to silence discussion of public tragedies dates to Mao Zedong. Xi Jinping, China’s current paramount leader, has carried the practice forward.

“He wants to eliminate the history by eliminating the collective memory,” said Song Yongyi, a Los Angeles historian who specializes in the study of the Cultural Revolution.

The Communist Party has never been candid about the truth of its rule. It never disclosed how many people died during the Great Famine from 1959 to 1961; historians have found evidence that the number ranged from millions to tens of millions. It is not known exactly how many were killed in the bloody crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989, though estimates of the number of deaths ranged from hundreds to several thousand.

Members of an organization of relatives of Tiananmen victims, called “the Tiananmen Mothers,” were harassed, surveilled and detained. At the top of their demands was “the right to mourn peacefully in public.”

The party relaxed its control somewhat in the 1990s and 2000s, and people like the investigative journalist Zhang Wenmin, who is known by her pen name, Jiang Xue, did their best to humanize their disaster coverage.

The Sichuan earthquake on May 12, 2008, claimed some 69,000 lives.Credit…Wang He/Getty Images

After the earthquake in Sichuan on May 12, 2008, in which more than 69,000 people died, Ms. Zhang and many other journalists, artists and activists tried to record the names and life stories of the dead. They produced some of China’s best journalistic and artistic works in recent memory despite occasional censorship.

“The Chinese public used to be referred to as nameless ‘masses’ in the party media outlets,” Ms. Zhang said. “Now they’re back to the ‘masses’ again with neither name nor face in the media.”

But even the limited freedom of expression that was afforded during that period has been eliminated under Mr. Xi, who has tightened the state’s control of information and how the past is remembered.

“Xi Jinping has made control of history one of his signature policies — because he sees counter-history as an existential threat,” Ian Johnson, an author who has covered China for decades, wrote in his new book, “Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and their Battle for the Future.”

Mr. Xi has turned the screws extra tight since the Covid pandemic. In April 2020, relatives of Wuhan residents who died were followed by minders when they picked up the ashes of their loved ones.

Relatives of Wuhan residents who died of Covid were followed by minders when they picked up the ashes of their loved ones.Credit…Hector Retamal/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The government ignored a citizen demand to make Feb. 6 a nationwide day of mourning to mark the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, the whistle-blower who had warned the public of the coronavirus.

“We have always known that our speech is not free, our voice is not free. Yet we do not realize until today that even sorrow and mourning do not belong to us,” Ms. Zhang, the independent journalist, wrote in an article that was widely circulated on WeChat and other social media platforms before it was censored.

A recent video of the bereaved father of a volleyball player killed in the gymnasium collapse in Qiqihar highlighted the cruel reality faced by family members in public tragedies: Their grief, in the eyes of the government, makes them potential threats to social stability.

In the six-minute video, the father remained preternaturally composed as he tried to reason with the police, doctors and government officials at a hospital. He and other family members wanted to be allowed to identify the bodies of their daughters.

The father said he understood why the police were at the hospital. “We didn’t cause any troubles,” he said. He said he understood why no officials bothered to talk to them. “That’s fine,” he said.

Many people said online and in interviews that they cried watching the video because they recognized his “heart-wrenching restraint” and knew why he behaved that way.

“What happens if he didn’t hold back his anger?” asked an author in an article posted on social media. “As a father who has suffered such immense pain, why did he have to reason with such restraint and humility?”

As usual, the censorship machine went into high gear. Social media posts containing names of the victims and celebrating their lives and friendships were deleted. So were photos and videos showing the entrance of their school, where the public sent numerous flower bouquets, yogurt, milk tea and canned peaches, which is a comfort food for children in northeastern China.

The most recent example of how the government tries to hide the mass suffering of the Chinese people is the flooding in northern China.

Areas in Hebei Province near Beijing were hit the hardest because the authorities opened spillways to partly protect Xiong’an, a city that is being expanded to serve as an alternate national capital. It is one of Mr. Xi’s pet projects. The Hebei government said on Thursday that 29 people died and 16 were missing in the flooding. On the social media platform Weibo, some commentators said the government was lying about the casualties; on some posts, the comment function was disabled.

Severe flooding outside Beijing in early August. Posts about the casualties, and the hardships people endured, were censored.Credit…Ju Huanzong/Xinhua, via Associated Press

Some social media posts and first-person accounts of the flooding were censored. Among the blocked posts were complaints from people who said that government officials were nowhere to be seen when they needed help, and only showed up after the flood receded.

On the home page of the Chinese central government, the top article is a story from the official Xinhua News Agency.

The headline reads: “Under the strong and resolute leadership of Comrade Xi Jinping, the Central Committee of the Party commands and directs the flood control, disaster relief and emergency response efforts in Hebei Province.”

Nearly 4,990 words, the article listed many things the government had done, including the number of text alerts it had sent. It did not mention how many people died or were missing or homeless. They would be the nameless “masses” who were, of course, grateful for the government’s rescue.

Back to top button