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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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