By Jia Jia

For the last two nights, seeing candles across my computer screen, I’ve wanted to burst out with curses: So you’ve got candles, but is that all you’ve got? Or are candles the only thing you deserve to have? Facing the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, and all the other disasters which have cost thousands of lives of ordinary people, do you have anything other than candles? After you burn your digital candles, you’ll just go back to what you were doing, and you have never thought, and will never think, about for whom the bell tolls.

Photo: ChinaNews.

On February 14, 2005 in Fuxin, Liaoning Province (辽宁阜新), a gas explosion in a mine snatched away the lives of 214 workers. At that time, there was no such thing as “praying for blessings” for them online, because most people didn’t even know about the tragedy. I rushed to the scene overnight. When I arrived, I saw piles of bodies in the snow, frozen stiff, piled up like so many matchsticks. No words can describe the rage I felt: this was a man-made tragedy, not a natural disaster. The report I wrote was killed, and media were only allowed to carry Xinhua wire copy. The families of miners with local residential registration (hukou) received 200,000 yuan (about $25,000 at the time) in compensation, while those without local hukou received 70,000 yuan (about $8,500). The penniless family of one of the dead miners wept to me in their unlit home: we’re all humans, so why are our lives so cheap?

mine blast

It was the first time I felt surrounded and suffocated by endless helplessness. Why? That’s the key word. If we don’t ask why, these incidents will keep happening, one after another. Actually, each day is the last day for some people. We don’t know their names, we just know the day they died. February 14, May 12, July 23, August 13 [respectively: the Liaoning mine disaster of 2005, the Wenchuan earthquake of 2008, the high-speed train derailment in Wenzhou of 2011, and the Tianjin explosions of 2015]. But slowly we forget. We are the walking dead who take each day as new, and nothing changes.

Who remembers the school buildings that collapsed during the Wenchuan earthquake? Seven years have passed—where are those children? Are their classrooms safe now? How many people know who Tan Zuoren (谭作人) and Liu Xianbin (刘贤斌) are? [Tan Zuoren and Liu Xianbin are civil society and democracy activists who were jailed for their work, in particular the attempt to find and publicize the truth about deaths in the Wenchuan quake.] How many people read, from beginning to end, the names of the 4,851 dead children? Lighting a digital candle is merely to seek your own peace of mind, and it’s like saying: “This is all I can do, I can do no more than that.” I agree with the words of my friend Tang Yinghong (唐映红): “Being moved without seeking the truth is just hypocrisy.”

But probing for the truth and revealing the truth are dangerous acts; so it’s not just hypocritical, but gutless. Twenty hours after the Tianjin explosions, when we still didn’t know just what had caused it, local authorities came out and said that spreading rumors would be severely punished. Hah, doesn’t this sound a little familiar? Isn’t this how the authorities react following each and every disaster? This is the bunch of people we sing the praises of every day! They are never competent in saving lives, but they’re real good at locking people up. You squirrel yourself away and quietly make a post to Weibo, and a few minutes later they know it was you who did it. But days after the explosions, they still don’t know just what on earth Ruihai International Logistics (瑞海国际物流) had in their warehouse. Does that sound plausible to you?

Fallen firefighters in Tianjin
Fallen firefighters in Tianjin. Photo: Sina.

Many people who lived near the Tianjin explosions were injured by the flying glass from their shattered windows. But if builders had used secure glass that conformed to safety regulations, these injuries could have been entirely avoided. Another example: if they didn’t have the first group of firefighters use water on the fire, many more casualties could have been avoided, according to Southern Weekend’s report that has since been censored. But what a shame it is that every time there is a disaster of this kind, at every point in the process someone has dropped the ball, and we always get the worst outcome.

I remember at the beginning of 2008 when there was a big snow, and later during CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala, a group of performers, earnest faces flushed with red, were singing: “February 8 is our second birthday, it’s when the Party gave us a second life!” OK then, so can you get your Great Savior to bring back to lives the charred corpses in Tianjin, or the bodies that can’t even be found because they were vaporized? Can it give them a second life? To tell you the truth, your Big Savior is more like a Rinpoche in Chaoyang District.[The reference is to an ersatz religious persona discussed in the press and blogosphere earlier this year.]

Tianjin mourner
A mourner marks seven days since the blasts in Tianjin. Photo: ECNS.

Today, Tianjin Daily (《天津日报》) used ten full pages to show that “Tianjin isn’t a city with no news.” But what were the ten pages? It was all emotionalism, about “being touched,” and nothing else. Thanking the government for directing the relief effort, thanking the firefighters, thanking the doctors and nurses. Indeed, their sacrifice should be appreciated. But they didn’t need to make these exertions in the first place. They didn’t need to do all that. Screw your “being touched”! Why is it that tragedies are always turned into occasions to praise the government? A friend said that he’d really like to smack Tianjin Daily in the face on behalf of Zhang Jiluan (张季鸾), [a famous, Tianjin-based newspaper man in the late Qing and Republican eras for independent and socially responsible journalism]. But forget it, Zhang Jiluan wouldn’t have survived in the communist era.

Both Song Zhibiao (宋志标) and Wu Qiang (吴强) [whom China Change has translated frequently] believed there has been a shift in linguistic paradigm between the 2008 earthquake and the current disaster, where the discourse of “being touched” replaced the discourse of seeking accountability. After so many years of attempting to hold officials to account, to the point of being thrown in jail, all that’s left to do is to “be touched,” where there is room only for cynicism or affected self-righteousness to ease the anxiety and shame that comes naturally to the heart. Lighting candles is easy. Or, put another way, all that is allowed us is to light candles. Apart from the right to “be touched” (or being forced to be touched), we have no other right. When the Great Savior needs you to act as an idiot, then you must be an idiot, and you don’t have a choice.

I thought of the sinking of the Bohai No. 2 drilling rig on November 25, 1979, when 72 people died. The vice-premier of the State Council, Kang Shien (康世恩), resigned because of it. But in 2005, with the mining disaster in Fuxin and the deaths of 214 people, even the local mayor was as safe as Mount Tai. Has human life gotten cheaper? No. But your Great Savior cares less and less about your lives. Don’t tell me that “many hardships contribute to reviving a nation” (“多难兴邦”); all I know is that many hardships have only helped enriching the ministers. Beginning with Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳), the pet phrase of every Prime Minister has been: “[I’m so sorry that] I’ve arrived too late.”[Famously said by Zhao to the hunger-striking students on Tiananmen Square the day before martial law was declared.] Oh come on, whether you come or not doesn’t make any difference.

Nor am I nostalgic for the so-called “old reformists” like Wan Li (万里). I still remember the morning when the ceremony to bid farewell to Zhao Ziyang’s remains was held. I left the funeral parlor at Babaoshan Cemetery, and outside saw an aged rural Sichuanese, surrounded by police, clutching to his chest a banner with the words: “If you want to eat grain, look for Ziyang” (“要吃粮,找紫阳”). They shoved him down and confiscated the banner. Though I sympathized with him, I still asked him: Why do you need to rely on Zhao Ziyang? The state’s forced grain levy was wrong in the first place.

So what’s there for you to get so “touched” over? Stop lighting your candles. Pick up a leather lash, and flog hard those derelict in their duty, who treat human lives like dirt. If you don’t use the whip, then you’re simply waiting until others light a candle for you. This morning a friend shared an essay with me on WeChat with a catching headline: “If I die in this disaster, don’t pray for me, avenge me instead.” But why do we have to wait until the moment of revenge?

Jia Jia (贾葭) is a Beijing-based journalist and columnist who has worked for Oriental Outlook (《瞭望东方周刊》), iFeng Weekly (《凤凰周刊》) and GQ Chinese. For years he has been writing columns for the Southern Metropolis Daily (《南方都市报》), Beijing News (《新京报》) and Vista (《看天下》). You can read his blog at Tencent Dajia blog. is a website devoted to news and commentary related to civil society, rule of law, and rights activities in China. China Change works with China’s democracy advocates to bring their voices into English and to help the rest of the world understand what people are thinking and doing to affect change in China. On many occasions their reports provided leads for major media outlets, and on others they translated key documents, such as Xu Zhiyong’s The New Citizens’ Movement, long before media and China watchers became aware of them.