After days of growing public fury over last month’s high-speed train crash and the government’s reaction, Chinese authorities have enacted a virtual news blackout on the disaster except for positive stories or information officially released by the government.
The sudden order from the Communist Party’s publicity department, handed down late Friday, forced newspaper editors to frantically tear up pages of their Saturday editions, replacing investigative articles and commentaries about the accident that killed 40 people in eastern China with cartoons or unrelated features. Major Internet portals removed links to news reports or videos related to the crash near Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province, in which 192 people were also hurt.
The government’s decision to muzzle the media followed a remarkable outpouring of online criticism of the government over the July 23 accident. For many in China, the train wreck has crystallized concerns about whether the government is sacrificing people’s lives and safety in pursuit of breakneck development and is cloaking its failures in secrecy or propaganda.
As it did in other recent scandals over health or safety, like the collapse of poorly built schools in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the government has moved aggressively to shut down an outcry that, if left unchecked, might spiral into social unrest beyond its control.
Tens of millions of Chinese have posted messages on the Chinese equivalents of Twitter questioning why the two high-speed trains crashed, whether the rescue effort was bungled and why images from the site showed wrecked train cars being buried in pits even before investigators began their work. After initially playing down the event, the state-run media also began to challenge why the accident occurred and how the government had handled it.
While the government censors have no easy way to control the rising tide of microblog posts, they curtailed discussion of the issue in the traditional news media.
Outraged by the order to silence themselves, dozens of journalists insisted in online messages that given the many troubling questions that remain, it was almost impossible to swallow the directives. The government has placed huge importance on the construction of high-speed rail, mounting the world’s largest public works project.
“Tonight, hundreds of papers are replacing their pages; thousands of reporters are having their stories retracted; tens of thousands of ghosts cannot rest in peace; hundreds of millions of truths are being covered up,” the editor of Southern Metropolis Daily, a newspaper based in Guangzhou, wrote Friday. “This country is being humiliated by numerous evil hands.” His post, on the site Sina Weibo, was later deleted.
“My story will not go to print today and looks like I will have to write something else,” wrote another journalist. “I’d rather leave the page blank with one word — ‘speechless.’ ”
It was a rare display of unity among Chinese journalists. All are under the thumb of propaganda authorities, but some work for state-owned publications while others work for privately owned media outlets that are typically more daring.
One prominent weekly, the Beijing-based Economic Observer, ignored the directive, rolling out nine pages of coverage of the accident in its Saturday edition. The report described the Railway Ministry as a runaway operation; reconstructed the events in Wenzhou from the viewpoint of dozens of survivors; and examined the failure of the official, state-operated media to report the accident when it occurred.
One of the Economic Observer’s journalists said the pages were already printed when the orders came.
But many others paid heed: editors said the 21st Century Business Herald and China Business Journal each tore up eight pages of articles while The Beijing Times jettisoned four pages. One discarded article, based on the account of the wife of one victim, was titled: “There was no miracle for them.” The headline was a pointed reference to a case that has been relentlessly trumpeted by officials and the state-run press — the rescue of a toddler 21 hours after the crash, after rescuers had given up all hope and been told to quit.
“There were three calls,” one editor in Beijing said. “The first came around 9 p.m., ordering us to ‘cool down’ coverage of the Wenzhou accident as much as possible.” An hour later, the newspaper was instructed “to print only Xinhua’s wire and not to print anything we had gotten ourselves. No comments, no analysis,” the editor said, referring to the official news agency. A third call at midnight ordered the accident coverage off the front page.
The authorities even postponed the publication of an article prepared by Xinhua, according to one editor who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions. That report focused on the Railway Ministry’s failure to answer a series of questions about the crash.
On its Web site, the Hong Kong Journalists Association protested, noting that only Thursday, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, speaking at a news conference in Wenzhou, had insisted that the “investigation into the accident should be open, transparent and monitored by the public.”
After initially playing down the accident, the state-run news media had grown more assertive in recent days. They were invigorated in part by the so-called netizens who all week staged an end run around the mainstream press with 140-character updates on China’s Twitter equivalents.
But some may have paid a price: the producer of one news program on CCTV, China’s state-owned television network, was reportedly reprimanded after one hard-hitting segment two days after the accident. A colleague said rumors the producer was fired were false, but declined to describe the repercussions.
In that segment, the host of the program asked: “If nobody can be safe, do we still want this speed? Can we drink a glass of milk that’s safe? Can we stay in an apartment that will not collapse?”
“China, please slow down,” the host said. “If you’re too fast, you may leave the souls of your people behind.”