Last week I wrote here that China’s twitter equivalent, Weiboc.om, won a small victory over the censors in reporting the high speed train crash at Wenzhou, Zhejiang. Many factors such as the location and time of the crash contributed to the fast-moving reporting from eyewitnesses and the slow response of the censors. In the process Weibo.com became the media of choice for eyewitnesses as well as journalists. One statistics says in the six and half hours after the train crash, over one million mini-posts related to the accident had been posted to Weibo.com. That’s over forty mini-posts every second.
The attention was quickly moved on to the rescue mission. The crash site is in a reasonably populated area, only about 4 kilometres outside the Wenzhou South train station. Besides rescue workers, local residents (many joined the initial rescue) and journalists reached the site fairly quickly. The fiasco of the rescue operation was on full view, live to many eyewitnesses and many many more Weibo users sitting in front of the screen waiting for latest update.
Many questions have been raised, in particular to the rushed end of the rescue operation, the total number of people killed and the decision of burying locomotive and carriages of the crashed train right away. These, along with the compassionless and arrogant demeanour of the spoke person from railway ministry, fuelled suspicion and anger, propagated quickly among re-posting Weibo users. Even the arrival of China’s premier Wen Jiabao at the crash site and an on the spot press conference couldn’t calm all the emotions.
What the press conference did was to give journalists an anchor to launch attack on the railway ministry, who is not only responsible for the safety of the railway, but also in charge of the rescue mission. For a week, Chinese journalists had almost free run on the story, producing many in-depth analyses and human interest stories, along with bold criticism towards railway officials while questioning China’s high speed rail strategy.
The authority, inevitably, responded in the way they knew best. On Friday evening, many journalists posted on Weibo the news that they had received a directive ordering them to strictly minimize coverage of the crash and remove any criticism towards the railway ministry. Many out-of-line mini-posts on Weibo had been deleted at the same time. A lot of journalists reacted by posting the images of the ‘killed-off pages’ of next day’s newspapers.
While most of newspapers seem to toe the line, there are exceptions. Some weekly newspapers and magazines were in better position to defend themselves because the next issue had already been sent to printers while the directive arrived. Among them, a weekly business newpaper, Economic Observer (a publication I write for) devoted 8 pages for the train crash and its aftermath. On the front page the headline says ‘There is no miracle of Wenzhou’, clearly referring to a callous remark made by the railway ministry spoke person. Being a business newspaper, it also raised the issue of railway ministry being too powerful, although the suggestion of ‘splitting the railway ministry’ doesn’t sound very realistic.
It’s been rumoured in the last few days that the railway ministry’s priority was resuming normal service instead of saving lives, which was denied by an unnamed official. Indeed the normal service did resume within 48 hours of the crash. However after allowing the press to run free in the last seven days, the censors may find it’s little bit more difficult to resume the normal service.