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China Punishes 50 Websites for ‘Creating Panic’ with Tianjin Chemical Explosion Reports

The Chinese government has ramped up censorship operations in light of the massive chemical explosion in Tianjin, publishing a report in which they accuse fifty websites of “creating panic” by “publishing unverified information” about the nature of the blast and the company storing the chemicals that exploded.

State media outlet Xinhua reported over the weekend that fifty websites were now under surveillance by the state’s Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) because the sites had “created panic” by either “publishing unverified information or letting users spread groundless rumors.” 18 websites had their licenses to operate revoked; 32 were temporarily suspended. Among the rumors Xinhua cites as being published online are: “the blasts killed at least 1,000 people,” “shopping malls in Tianjin got looted,” and “leadership change in Tianjin government.”

Xinhua has focused its coverage instead on favorably depicting the government’s response to the explosion, noting on Monday that 2,000 soldiers and armed police have been deployed to clean up the still-smoldering remains of the chemical storage facility that exploded last Thursday. Civilians have been evacuated from a three-kilometer radius of the blast, as the government fears dangerous fumes are still flowing out of the explosion site.

Xinhua notes that 6,000 people have been displaced by the explosion, and the official death toll remains under 150.

Other state publications like the People’s Daily have either attacked the local government of Tianjin, claiming officials have done little to quell the rumors the federal government is trying desperately to suppress. Its coverage of the Beijing communist government generally has been limited to stories like “Puppy saved from Tianjin explosion site.”

Time notes that the People’s Daily has turned on one other target, however: Rui Hai International Logistics, the company who owned the chemical storage facility that exploded. In a report, the outlet suggested the company was smuggling an excess of chemicals into the facility. Time confirmed from an employee of a government doing business with Rui Hai that the corporate had indeed stored a high amount of sodium cyanide in the facility.

While the exact cause of the explosion is still unknown, the Chinese government has confirmed that sodium cyanide was being kept in that facility. It is believed that up to 700 tons of the dangerous chemical, used to extract gold from ore, was being kept there. That number would be 70 times the amount corporations are legally allowed to store in one place. Such products are to be stored no less than one kilometer from residential areas which, as video of the explosion tragically shows, was not the case in Tianjin.

China’s top prosecutor has vowed that he will “look into possible illegal acts.”

The Washington Post notes that relatives of those missing—still dozens—gathered to protest on Sunday, the day before predicted rains may further exacerbate the extent of the economic disaster facing Tianjin. “From a legal perspective, it’s unreasonable that dangerous chemicals would be so close,” Zhang Yinbao, a protester, told Reuters.

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