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The Bungled Media Aftermath of China's Fatal Pipeline Explosion

Dozens of people have died in the coastal Chinese city of Qingdao, and authorities are sorry -- but, most Chinese think, not sorry enough. Early on Nov. 22, a crude oil pipeline owned and operated by Sinopec, a state-owned petrochemical giant, began to leak. It exploded later that morning, ripping through the road with sufficient force to overturn cars above it, killing an estimated 55 and injuring over 100. Both officials and executives have scrambled to manage the public relations aftermath with a combination of apologies and state media coverage touting clean-up efforts.

But many Chinese are unsatisfied. A public apology from Sinopec, one of China's largest corporations, backfired on Nov. 25 when the company sent Li Chunguang, a vice president, to deliver the official apology, instead of President Fu Chengyu. Li admitted, albeit vaguely, that Sinopec had "failed the city of Qingdao and the people of this country." On Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, a user who claimed to hail from Qingdao condemned Li's "robotic, cold recitation," arguing that if he was truly sincere, he would have stood up and bowed instead of remaining seated. More subdued users called for Li's resignation, while more extreme ones urged him to commit suicide. Others demanded to know why Fu did not appear at the hearings himself. (Fu expressed condolences during a Nov. 23 television appearance lasting less than one minute, and has not publicly appeared since.) "If he was the head of a private company," wrote one Weibo user, "he would have been arrested."

Perhaps aware that anti-Sinopec sentiment can easily tarnish the government that owns it, Chinese officials tried to use media channels to their advantage. The day after the explosion, local papers came under fire as readers alleged certain outlets had played up government responsiveness -- including an appearance by President Xi Jinping -- while playing down the scale of devastation. In particular, the party-run Qingdao Daily drew ire by quoting displaced resident Wang Zhenhua's praise for government officials: "We ordinary people are deeply grateful for the concern of the party and government," without which "we would not have our happy lives today." One Weibo user suggested, "The party and government should try to blow up Wang Zhenhua one more time." Long Xingchun, a columnist and international relations commentator, jokingly cautioned against vilifying Wang: "We don't even if know if this person exists."

Of course, public outrage is often par for the course in the aftermath of such devastation, especially in China, where the government has bungled crisis management situations many times before. Authorities would be hard-pressed to escape criticism no matter how swift or comprehensive their disaster-relief efforts. Many Chinese felt that no measure of assistance could make up for the damage the disaster caused. As one online commenter asked, "Why do people always wait until after things happen to ask ‘why'?"

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Chinese Officials Ask Muslim Women to Unveil in the Name of Beauty

In the Chinese region of Xinjiang, home to a large population of the country's Muslim Uighur minority, government workers are encouraging women to cast off their headscarves in the name of good looks. Called "Project Beauty," the government-backed campaign has reportedly taken over the streets of Kashgar, one of the few cities in China where a significant number of women don the veil for religious reasons. De facto beauty police staff street-side stalls and single out veiled women, recording their images with a surveillance camera and even making them watch a re-education film "about the joys of exposing their faces."

The effort is an underhanded campaign to put beauty ideals to work in the name of national security. States have long tried to restrict the veil among Muslim women, often through formal decree. But China is taking something of a soft-power approach and telling China's Muslim women to unveil and show their pretty faces.

What isn't said is that the true aim of that campaign is to make it easier to track members of a restive minority group.

China's ruling party has tried to ban veiling at various points in its history, but its policies on the practice have come under scrutiny amid charges by human rights groups that the government is carrying out a campaign of religious repression and persecution against Uighurs. Meanwhile, Chinese authorities have fingered Xinjiang's Uighur population as a potential hotbed of Islamic extremism and terrorism. Uighurs counter that China's anti-terrorism laws disproportionately target Muslims. The ensuing tension has resulted in violent clashes in recent years and the poisonous relations between the Chinese government and Uighurs took a sharp turn for the worse in October when Uighurs were blamed for a deadly attack in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. 

The question of Uighur women's right to wear a veil is one among several points of contention. In 2011, notices prohibiting the practice began popping up in Muslim cities in Western China, according to the AP. The campaign's stated aim was to rid the country of the "abnormal phenomenon ... of minority ethnic women and youth wearing Arabian dress, growing beards, and covering their faces in veils." In 2013, Radio Free Asia reported that a Uighur woman in the Xinjiang capital, Urumqi, was evicted from her rental apartment for wearing a veil. Chinese authorities haven't been particularly forthcoming about the state's anti-veiling policies, often claiming to be are unaware of such edicts, or declining to comment on the matter altogether. But officials in Xinjiang have been found to keep detailed records of Muslim Uighurs, which include notes about who wears a veil and who doesn't.

At least six countries have banned or limited veiling in public spheres -- France, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Turkey, and Tunisia -- usually on grounds of state secularism. China, by contrast, aims to regulate Muslim dress in large part as a counter-terrorism measure. The obvious implication is that the mere practice of Islam represents a threat to national security, an argument China's Uighurs understandably haven't taken to kindly. The government's counterterror initiative is seen among Uighurs as an attempt to dilute and homogenize their culture. In trying to bring the province's separatist movement to heel, the Chinese government has demolished historic sites and restricted religious freedom in Xinjiang. What the Chinese government views as a campaign to subdue a restive region, Uighurs see as a war on their culture.

And "Project Beauty" can certainly be viewed though that lens. The campaign plays on the familiar notion that beauty is more valuable to women than other facets of their identities, including religious belief. A woman focused on her appearance, the logic goes, is hardly a threat to the state. What better way to politically neutralize women, after all, than to call upon an approach tried and tested by politicians, advertisers, and husbands for hundreds of years?

EPA/DIEGO AZUBEL