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LinkAsia | Sep 16
Last week, Beijing's propaganda department took control of two of China's boldest and most popular newspapers: the Beijing News and Beijing Times. ...
If you remember from last week, we told you about this terrible train crash that happened last week in Wenzhou China. The Chinese government tried their best to control news coverage of the incident, but it couldn’t control China’s social media. We have this report from David Bandurski.
On July 23rd, the collision of two high-speed trains in China killed at least 39 people and injured more than 200. The government moved immediately to restrict the press, ordering reporters away from the scene.
But in the week that followed, both old media and new media proved unstoppable. So how could this happen in a country where control of the press is a top priority of the leadership?
One answer, of course, was the power of the internet. The crash was reported almost immediately on social media. Here are photos of the rescue effort in the dark. And here, Chinese in Wenzhou respond in real-time to an emergency call for blood donations. "There are so many safety problems with our high-speed trains!" says this user. To which another responds, "There’s no guarantee of safety at all! All these layers of subcontracting, and everyone skimming off the top."
As daylight came, anger online continued to build, especially as it became clear that the government’s top priority was clearing away wreckage and getting the line running again. Chinese watched with shock as wreckage was shoved into pits with machinery. "There are definitely still bodies in there." say these furious villagers watching nearby. They are later proven right by Japanese reporters, who shot this footage, widely shared on China’s web.
But it wasn’t just the internet. After years of reform, Chinese journalists have become a lot feistier. They now push at every opportunity, seeking the public interest, rather than just the party interest. They’ve professionalized even in a very tough environment.
At the government press conference on the 24th, spokesman Wang Yongping was asked how a 2-year-old girl had been found in the wreckage after rescue efforts were called off. Playing the leadership’s feel-good theme, Wang said: "It was a miracle!" He was screamed down by reporters: "It’s not a miracle! It’s not a miracle!" It was incompetence, they implied.
By the end of the weekend, the story was too big to stop. Even the state-run Xinhua News Agency was harshly criticizing the Railway Ministry. A photo of a train zipping past the abandoned wreckage. And real questions: was priority given to reopening the line instead of lives? And was key evidence handled properly?
Once the state news agency was bolder in its coverage, the rest of China’s media saw the light turn green. There was still risk. But they pushed hard. Here are some of the stronger cover stories.
The last factor leading to more open coverage was a visit of Premier Wen Jiabao to the scene of the crash. Wen has been criticized for talking nice but doing little. But he is still seen by many as a champion of political reform, at least the idea. And his visit encouraged media to push again on this story. We’ll get to the bottom of this, he promised.
Coverage the day after Wen’s visit was the hardest we have seen in China’s media for a long time--tough stories about corruption and incompetence, angry voices speaking to public concerns.
Unfortunately, coverage was quickly muzzled. As an order came down from propaganda officials, newspapers had to pull the coverage they had already planned for July 30th. Leaders were telling media: enough is enough. In Hong Kong for LinkAsia, I’m David Bandurski, and I’ll see you next time.