You cannot hide a 520-feet-high inferno in the city-centre, a halted subway line, 600 firemen, 85 fire engines, and 626 evacuated residents plus thousands more (including this correspondent) on the streets, taking photographs and videos.
But on Monday night, the Communist Party’s national broadcaster and powerful propaganda machine — China Central Television (CCTV) — was the last to break the news about a 30-storey blaze in its own 714-million-dollar complex.
The next day, officials blamed CCTV for using unauthorised fireworks on the site and ignoring police warnings. But while the unopened Mandarin Oriental luxury hotel, television studio and cinema complex — famously nicknamed the Big Boot for its odd angular shape — was burning, CCTV booted the news.
Residents who could see the flames from a mile away, switched on CCTV to find the channel airing a gala to celebrate the end of the Lunar New Year holiday.
China is planning a multi-million dollar global expansion of its government media to give itself an image makeover. But its official censors remain busy and draw the ire of bold young netizens who demand media freedom. When a student recently hurled his shoe at Premier Wen Jiabao in Cambridge, CCTV had broadcast the incident after a nearly 24-hour delay.
While the fire raged opposite the HT Beijing bureau that night, I could not find the official news report on the State-run Xinhua news agency until after foreign agencies and Chinese netizens posted photographs and videos. The buzz is that official censors reportedly blocked initial videos and Internet discussions on the topic. The next day, television coverage gave the news cursory content and visuals. The People’s Daily website, Xinhua, and even CCTV, which has been blamed for the blaze that destroyed its new complex Monday night, failed to issue the first headline on the breaking news,’’ said a report in the Shanghai Daily.
The delay has sparked online debates questioning China’s mega investment in the unopened Z-shaped CCTV towers, the double standards for government influentials and the quality of official media coverage.
The broadcaster has since issued a brief public apology for damaging the country’s property. But Beijingers are not in a forgiving mood.
The Boot still stands as a charred landmark for residents who arrive daily with cameras.
To add to the official discomfort, Beijingers had nicknamed the Boot’s neighbour, the Z-shaped interlocked CCTV towers, as the Big Pants. The local joke now doing the rounds is about CCTV’s pants on fire.