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China's CCTV network gets little sympathy after hotel fire

Public anger had been simmering over the TV network's spending and government-slanted news coverage. The fire at the Mandarin Oriental site in Beijing offers an outlet for the rage.

February 11, 2009|Peter Spiegel

BEIJING — Even before it was revealed Tuesday that an unauthorized fireworks display organized by China Central Television caused the spectacular fire that destroyed one of Beijing's new glass-and-steel landmarks, the state-run broadcaster was already the subject of its own firestorm on the Internet.

The inferno at CCTV's new, still-unoccupied headquarters complex laid bare simmering anger and resentment toward the network both for spending public money on grand construction projects and for continuing to broadcast government propaganda.

"As long as there aren't any injuries, let it burn. They don't need so many buildings [in] the first place," wrote one typical anonymous poster at the popular news portal Sohu.com. "CCTV enjoys too much luxury already. They will always have enough buildings, even though this building is down."

Jeremy Goldkorn, editor of a website that tracks Chinese media, said that among China's young, educated and urban, the stodgy network has long been a subject of ridicule, both for its low production values and its propagandistic news coverage.

But the fire -- which engulfed what was to be the Mandarin Oriental hotel, a dramatic, angular tower that stands next to the now-iconic CCTV building -- provided a new touchstone for critics, prompting the government to move quickly to mute the outrage.

By Tuesday morning, Beijing's propaganda ministry had ordered all Chinese news media to stop reporting their own versions of the fire story and to use only the account provided by the official New China News Agency.

Newspapers were told not to use photos of the fire, or to do any in-depth reporting.

A similar notice went out to news websites, which were told to shut down blogs and discussion groups on the subject.

"Many people were very happy and rejoiced at the fire. Some said it's good that it burned," said Li Datong, a former editor at the Communist Party newspaper China Youth Daily, who was fired three years ago for criticizing government censorship. "The government isn't happy with these kinds of emotions, so they strictly controlled all reports."

Many websites quickly deleted critical postings, but the government's blunt tools were unable to completely stem the deluge.

One independent blogger named Zola posted an online poll in which 30% supported the statement "I hate CCTV, not just for this day. It has been fooling us for many years. It's definitely good for it to be self-immolated."

Forty-three percent supported a more subdued view, expressing sadness for the loss of state property.

In the afternoon, CCTV took the rare step of issuing a public apology for the fire, saying it was "deeply distressed" by the damage to state property and the disruptions caused to those living and working near the complex.

"CCTV expresses its sincere apology," the network said in a letter read on air by an anchor.

Beijing authorities said an investigation was underway, including a review of CCTV's own videotapes of the incident. The network said it would cooperate.

According to city fire officials, the blaze erupted after CCTV's large-scale fireworks display, for which government permission had not been obtained, erupted into a fireball, sending flames down the face of the asymmetrical building.

State-run news media on Tuesday also released more information about the lone person to die, 30-year-old firefighter Zhang Jianyong. He was among the first on the scene and died of smoke and gas inhalation, the media reported. Five other firefighters and one CCTV employee were injured, but hospital officials told the state-run media that none of the injuries were life-threatening.

Witnesses said firefighters arrived long after the blaze began and did little to battle it until it reached the lower floors because they lacked equipment to reach the upper stories.

In its apology, CCTV appeared to lay the blame on a mid-level official responsible for the site's management, who hired the fireworks company for Monday night's show.

The display was timed for the close of the Lunar New Year.

Fireworks are normally banned in the capital, but they are allowed for the New Year festival, and the skies of Beijing were aglow Monday night.

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peter.spiegel@latimes.com

Eliot Gao and Nicole Liu of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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