Last Thursday morning I was on the bus to work in the central business district of Beijing, browsing social media and loathing myself for obsessing over posts about fashion, when I saw a picture of black and purple smoke rising over thousands of completely burnt-out cars. News travels fast in China these days. The photo was reposted by a friend of mine, who is from Tianjin. It looked like a war zone.
The last time I saw something this terrifying was seven years ago. Back then I was working as a journalist for the Chinese state media, and on the afternoon of May 12 a friend called to tell me there had been a major earthquake near his home town in Sichuan province. He hung up in a rush, saying he needed to check if his parents were safe.
In 2008 it was unusual for breaking news to arrive via your phone. Facebook and Twitter were already blocked to most Chinese Internet users. Weibo, which has been called the Chinese version of Twitter, did not yet exist. Neither did WeChat — now China's most widely used social media platform and the one on which I heard about last week's tragedy in Tianjin. It would not be launched for more than two years.
A week after my friend's distraught call, I went to Sichuan with a group of fellow reporters to report on the aftermath of the earthquake. The closer I got to the reality of the disaster, the more distant I was from information about it: we were on the move constantly with no radio and no newspapers; my mobile phone was disconnected quite often due to bad reception.
I had the chance to talk to survivors, shed tears with them, and we faced the fear of aftershocks, flood and contamination together. We were all scared. But at least we knew what was happening — unlike many farther away, who relied on what second-hand information they could obtain.
No one had to rely on such reports last week. Still on the bus in Beijing, I sent an instant message to my friend. "A disaster," she replied, "like the end of the world. Fortunately my parents were living far enough away, so they are OK."
You did not have to know someone in the stricken city to know what was going on. My smartphone buzzed with all sorts of information: pictures of the blast site, apparently taken by a drone; video footage of the shock wave; logs written by reporters on the scene.
A photographer with the nickname X-ceanido uploaded images to WeChat after spending Thursday in the ruins. Within 24 hours these cruelly graphic pictures, accompanied by a diary-style report, had been viewed 100,000 times and attracted more than 2,000 comments. They were deleted, probably by Internet censors, only to pop up again every time they were taken down.
At home that evening I tuned my television to a Tianjin station and steeled myself for more horrifying footage. What I saw shocked me for a different reason: the channel was broadcasting a Korean television drama. There was nothing about the explosions. Eventually the schlocky romance was turned off and some newsreaders came on, reading carefully written statements from a teleprompter. The city authorities held press conferences, each one as brief as possible — although some of them ended awkwardly, with critical questions left unanswered, prompting more criticism online.
While information is now easier to come by, hard facts are not. The fragmented sources on social media are bewildering; some offer solid reporting, but others can be subjective and inaccurate. It is difficult to tell which are which. Advanced technology has provided an escape from the censorship. But we are at risk of replacing silence with indecipherable noise. It is sometimes difficult to believe anything unless you see it with your own eyes or hear it from someone you trust.
And silence has a way of coming back. Three days after the explosions, some popular posts seemed to have been deleted. A Weibo message recording the explosion, which had been posted by a nearby resident on the evening it happened, had somehow disappeared into thin air. The authorities have arrested some people who posted online, accusing them of "scamming". Hundreds of social media accounts have been shut down on the grounds that they had been used for "spreading rumour".
On Monday night, nearly five days after the blasts, official television was reporting that least 114 people had died and 70 were missing. Whether any local officials were expected to be held responsible, it did not say. As to why dangerous chemicals were being stored only hundreds of metres from residential buildings where tens of thousands of people live, there was no definitive official answer.