by Mike Mulvihill
Isn’t it interesting how social media empowers people in socialistic countries where the government neither protects nor encourages a free press?
On July 30, China Media Project Director Qian Gang delivered a radio address to the journalists of China and Hong Kong. His remarks highlighted the remarkably candid, bold and broad coverage by mainland Chinese media of the July 23 collision of two high speed trains on a Beijing to Shanghai line in Wenzhou that left 40 dead and nearly 200 injured.
As he spoke of this “rare high point” in Chinese media coverage, freedom of the press was being undermined by government censorship. A July 29 government notice was being put into effect demanding Chinese media immediately tone down their reporting and commentary of the now week old train crash. Newspaper editors were forced to destroy their Saturday editions, investigative articles with cartoons and unrelated stories.
An excerpt from the directive read:
“Latest demands on the Wenzhou train collision accident: 1. Figures on the number of dead must follow numbers from authoritative departments; 2. Frequency of reports must not be too dense; 3. More reporting should be done on stories that are extremely moving, for example people donating blood and taxi drivers not accepting fares; 4. There must be no seeking after the causes [of the accident], rather, statements from authoritative departments must be followed; 5. No looking back and no commentary.
” . . . From now on, the Wenzhou train accident should be reported along the theme of ‘major love in the face of major disaster’. No calling into doubt, no development [of further issues], no speculation, and no dissemination [of such things] on personal microblogs! . . . ”
The earlier “un-toned down” media reports had accused the government of safety lapses and attempts to hide mistakes. China’s official Xinhua news agency reported widespread public outrage at the government’s handling of the deadly crash, including moves to bury at least one wrecked passenger carriage before determining the cause of the collision after an online video showed a passenger car being buried at the site of the crash. The video sparked what Xinhua described as “concerns the true reason for the crash might be buried along with it.”
Beijing’s efforts at squashing the story (as well as fodder for concerns about a potential cover up) stem from scandal and mismanagement within China’s ambitious railway building program. The previous railways minister, Liu Zhijun, was forced to resign in February amid allegations that millions of dollars were embezzled from the program. The ministry managed more than $100 billion in high-speed rail projects last year, and China plans to build about 100,000 miles of high speed railway by the year 2020.
Social Media Fills The Void
Despite the directive to report only from state-run media, many online news outlets criticized the government openly.
After censors stepped up demands for the coverage to stop, users of the Chinese hybrid of Twitter and Facebook, Weibo (Chinese for microblogging), began posting messages denouncing the clampdown. In fact, the story broke on Weibo.
“Our train bumped into something. Our carriage has fallen onto its side. Children are screaming . . . Come to help us please! Come fast!” Those were the words immediately posted on July 23 via a Weibo account of a passenger on the train; the first in a string of similar microblogging messages sent over the Sina Corp (SINA) and Tencent Holdings microblogging sites that combined, have more users than Twitter has worldwide. In 10 hours, her plea was reposted 100,000 times. In the following week, there were 10 million messages about the crash on Sina’s Weibo and 20 million on Tencent’s QQ.com Weibo, the other major Chinese micro blog.
All in all, some 20 million micro-bloggers demonstrated their newsmaking ability. Anyone who had a Weibo account and received those messages would likely have turned on their local news to see what was going on beyond the short Weibo message.
During the two-year history of micro blogs in China, bloggers have claimed other successes. In March, they pushed a city government to not to cut down 600 old trees, and organized help for earthquake victims in Japan. In July, they put the Red Cross Society of China and its financial operations under public scrutiny
As reported in Forbes, Lu Yuegang, a former investigative reporter for the Party-run China Youth Daily, told Reuters, “These days, efforts to seal off the flow of opinion can’t work like it did before.”
Stand aside China, you can’t stop social media from undoing decades of socialistic government censorship.