On Monday afternoon, an explosion tore through a building in Yulin, a prefectural city of more than three million people in China’s northern Shaanxi province. News spread quickly on social media, with one of the earliest accounts emerging from CNWest (西部网), an official website overseen by Shaanxi’s provincial propaganda department.

“At around 2 o’clock in the afternoon, an explosion occurred in Xinmin Township in Yulin’s Fugu County, and a hospital was located next to the blast,” said a CNWest WeChat post at 3:28 p.m., roughly an hour after the explosion. “Our reporter can see from video provided by locals that after the explosion occurred, smoke and dust choked streets throughout the township.”

Photo: China Media Project.

“CNWest journalists are headed to the scene now.”

The CNWest WeChat post drew thousands of comments, adding to the rumour and speculation gaining momentum online. Photos and video, shared through internet portal sites like Netease and Sina as well as on Weibo and WeChat, quickly made the rounds.

Photo: China Media Project.

But almost as quickly, the story stopped in its tracks.

An official news release from Xinhua News Agency, the foundation of Hong Kong media reports on Monday and international media reports on Tuesday, came at around 5 p.m. And once the Xinhua version was out, the story started progressively disappearing from the internet inside China, buried and marginalised.

Here is the official account released on Monday by Xinhua News Agency, filed from Xi’an, and also carried by China News Service on its website:

Our reporters learned from the leadership team of the onsite rescue that as of 11 p.m. on the 24th, the number of dead in the explosion in Shaanxi’s Fugu County had risen to 10 people. The explosion has so far resulted in 157 injuries, with 113 of these being treated in hospital (11 in critical condition) and 34 being treated in clinics. According to preliminary reports, some are still trapped and awaiting rescue and rescue efforts are ongoing.

At around 2 p.m. on the 24th, an explosion occurred at the temporary building facility of a resident in the Xinmin Township of Fugu County, and this caused damage to nearby structures, as well as loss of life. After receiving reports, the Party and government leadership of Yulin City immediately formed an onsite rescue leadership team and 7 rescue work teams. The city’s Party secretary, Hu Zhiqiang (胡志强) and mayor Wei Jundong (尉俊东) led relevant departments to take responsibility for directing the onsite rescue efforts. Rescue work is still being carried out in an urgent but orderly manner, and the cause of the accident is being investigated.

We can note that by this point already the source of the information is the “leadership team of the onsite rescue,” formed by the top leadership in Yulin.

Photo: China Media Project.

The shift in coverage was noted just after midnight by Sina Weibo user “Qinmeng de Majia” (秦蒙的马甲), located in Yulin. They posted a series of photos taken from the scene of the blast that had appeared earlier that day on the Netease web portal — the original source CNWest. The user also shared the original CNWest WeChat post, the one which had spoken of its reporter rushing off to the scene.

When “Qinmeng de Majia” tried visiting main website of CNWest, however, they discovered that news of the Yulin explosion was nowhere to be seen. Promoted to the top of the site instead was a feature story about a Xi’an paper-cutting artist who had made a series to commemorate the anniversary of the Long March, and a “HOT” story about plans to build ten new subway lines in Xi’an by 2023.

“Open up the main page of CNWest and just look at the hideous mess of headlines!” wrote “Qinmeng de Majia,” the miffed Weibo user. “Even for this sort of story the authorities want to lock down information.”

Photo: China Media Project.

By this morning, the Yulin story had effectively been buried on China’s internet. Stories from both Phoenix Online and People’s Daily Online, pictured in the Google Search at left, had been scrubbed.

Among the domestic stories shown in the Google Search, only the online story from The Beijing News survives. It recapitulates the facts from the Xinhua release, but does manage to expand the story just a bit by interviewing a shop owner in Yulin as well as a local hospital employee.

Photo: China Media Project.

Visiting a range of major news sites in China both this morning and this afternoon — including People.com.cn, Xinhuanet.cn, Sina.com.cn (including news.sina.com.cn) and QQ.com — I found no sign of the Yulin story.

At Southcn.com, the website of the Nanfang Daily Group, including such notable newspapers at the Southern Metropolis Daily and Southern Weekly, the story was buried in the “Rule of Law Newsflash” section (法治快讯), but limited to three photographs sourced on social media, along with a blurb from the China Central Television Weibo account that read: “At around 2 p.m. on October 24, 2016, an explosion occurred at a filling station near a health centre in Xinmin Township of Shaanxi’s Fugu County, and glass was broken in residential buildings nearby. The number of injuries is not yet known, and the reporter is still investigating further the causes.”

The story was missing almost entirely from Tuesday’s newspapers in China. Searching the WiseNews database, covering more than 300 mainland newspapers, I found just six mentions of “Yulin + explosion,” and just one front page report in the entire country.

The prize goes to the Lanzhou Morning Post (兰州晨报), a commercial newspaper in the capital city of Gansu province, which borders Shaanxi province, where the explosion occurred. Page one of the paper included a prominent photo of smoking rubble in Yulin with a headline announcing a jump to page six: “Building Expodes in Yulin, 10 Already Dead, 147 Injured.” The subhead said that the blast was heard scores of kilometres away from the site, and that the suspected cause was “private storage” of explosive materials.

The Lanzhou Morning Post on October 25, the only newspaper in China to put the story of the explosion in Yulin, Shaanxi province on its front page. Photo: China Media Project.

Ningxia Daily, the official Party mouthpiece of neighbouring Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, reported the Yulin story on page six, a tiny item on the right-hand side of the page, drawing from the Xinhua News Agency release.

Page 6 of Ningxia Daily on October 25 includes a tiny story on the explosion in Yulin. Photo: China Media Project.

Front page coverage in Ningxia Daily focused on tourist visits to Jiangtaibao, a new monument to the Long March opened three months ago, and on reforms to the tax policy. Featured right at dead centre was a sentimental piece about the passing of an old Party member who took great personal pleasure in the payment each year of her Party membership fees.

Photo: China Media Project.

The Qianjiang Evening News, a commercial spin-off of the official Zhejiang Daily in the coastal province of Zhejiang, ran the Yulin story on page 20 in the “Domestic News” section — again a diminutive news brief with only the essential Xinhua facts. The paper did manage to slot in a small photograph from the scene of the explosion, showing people standing amid the rubble.

Front page coverage at the Qianjiang Evening News focused on the vexing issue of garbage cleanup in the provincial capital of Hangzhou, and on the province’s reported GDP growth of 7.5 percent for the third quarter. Page two was dominated by coverage of the economic numbers, and page three featured a positive story about a vagrant in Hangzhou who had been given several job interviews by good samaritans.

Jiangnan Metropolis Daily, a commercial spin-off of the official Jiangxi Dailyin Jiangxi province, ran coverage of Yulin on page 11.

As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, October 25, Yulin was not listed among the top trending news topics on Sina Weibo, a highly suspect omission given the freshness of the story and the lack of available information.

CNWest has returned to the sort of news stories leaders find more palatable in the midst of important political meetings like the ongoing Sixth Plenum. The hot topic on Tuesday on the official Weibo account of CNWest is film star Fan Bingbing, who recently held a screening event at a university in Shaanxi to discuss I Am Not Madame Bovary, the latest film directed by Feng Xiaogang.


David Bandurski

David is the co-director of the China Media Project, a research and fellowship program with the Journalism & Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong. A frequent commentator on Chinese media, his writings have appeared in Far Eastern Economic Review, the Wall Street Journal, Index on Censorship, the SCMP and others.