Sunday, February 15, 2009

Beijing - Towering Inferno

As no doubt a lot of us who would by coincidence happen to read this post, I have been watching the footage on the burning TVCC complex with the "Mandarin Oriental" hotel, next to the new CCTV headquartes in Beijing, and there were two things that struck me in my own analysis of what had happened.

First, I found myself wondering: "Do I believe this ?". Of course, I'm not talking about the event itself. I'm talking about the explanation. So it appears CCTV has conceded itself in the meantime that the fire was set off by a flare of the (illegal) fireworks CCTV had commissioned itself to celebrate the end of the Chinese New Year period. The fireworks that were set off by the national broadcasting company were class "A" fireworks, which would have required a special permission from the municipal government to use (the normal firecrackers used by the majority of the people in this period seems to fall under the category "C" or "D" - fireworks light, so to say). So CCTV broke the rules, apparently even denying warnings from local police, but even so I was wondering: could one flare, or maybe even a few, landing on top of the building set off such a fire ?

I look at the photo's of the building and see the entire structure, from top to bottom, being ablaze. I then "google" my memory for some reference material and quite obviously I land up with the images of the Twin Towers. Now in the case of the Twin Towers, there were two Boeing airplanes, full of kerosene, crashing into the buildings which quite obviously resulted in a tremendous fire, but ... as far as I remember, I didn't see the fire spread to all the floors below. The buildings crumbled, but not because the fire spread over all the building. I am quite well aware that the size of the "Mandarin Oriental" is in no way to be compared with the Twin Towers, but still. I am grappling with the comparison between the impact of an airplane and the impact of a couple of flares of fireworks. Am I seeing a conspiracy ? The thought didn't occur on my mind till I saw someone mentioning it in the comments on chinaSMACK, but that doesn't really make sense to me at this point. I guess I'll have to wait for the explanations of the experts that no doubt will start to appear in the media in the time to follow, to learn how that fire could spread so quickly with the known devastating results. Was the construction that slipshod; were the safety precautions so loose or were the used building materials (again) not measuring up to the "A"-class of the fireworks ? It will be interesting to find out.

The second thing that surprised me is how easily the facts, also in my mind, would become overshadowed by the symbolic value of the events. I am not a scientist in any way, but I ususally try to give the superstition department also a miss. Still seeing these images, I couldn't help but think I was watching the human "hubris" being punished:

Hubris (/hjuːbrɪs/) or hybris (/'haɪbrɪs/) (ancient Greek ὕβρις), mythology is a term used in modern English to indicate overweening pride, self-confidence, superciliousness, or arrogance, often resulting in fatal retribution. In ancient Greece, hubris referred to actions which, intentionally or not, shamed and humiliated the victim, and frequently the perpetrator as well. It was most evident in the public and private actions of the powerful and rich. The word was also used to describe actions of those who challenged the gods or their laws, especially in Greek tragedy, resulting in the protagonist's downfall.

China has undergone tremendous changes in the past decennia, changes of a size and impact possibly never witnessed before. And before anyone would think otherwise, I do wish China to progress and the Chinese people to take up their rightful place under the sun. But it is undeniably true that things have sometimes gotten out of balance and that the "ever bigger, ever grander" adagium has also struck there. Though I hate to admit to it, seeing the TVCC building burn, I was asking myself: Is someone or something trying to send a signal that the limits have been reached and that it's up till here and no further ? It's an unsettling thought for an agnosticus like myself, but it was there nevertheless ... and I'm not the only one who has been asking itself similar questions. Anybody here who knows whether firecrackers are a common thing in Dubai ?

There are three things that give me reason for some positive upside, foremost of course the victim toll of the fire being reasonably low for the size of the disaster. I do of course regret the death of firefighter Zhang Jianyong and the others that got hurt, for it's always so useless to die for the mistakes made by others, but all in all it could have been much worse. Second, I think Beijing may have been rid of a seriously ugly building. I had actually never seen it before. No picture of Rem Koolhaas' new CCTV tower ("The Big Underpants") I've ever seen shows that troglodyte behind it but now that I have, I hope it doesn't get rebuilt. If we give up the balance, let's try at least to safeguard some good taste. And third, when a fire can give reason for this awesome blogger to go back to his childhood when he was a 12-year old kid and his fascination with firecrackers and other "pyrofernalia" and write these memories down, then I am inclined to think that somehow, in the end, we'll be fine ...

(picture on top via "Shanghaiist")

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