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Chinese media defy censors to attack government on crash

August 3, 2011

By Kathrin Hille in Beijing

Chinese censors are struggling to contain public and media reaction to the high-speed train crash that claimed at least 39 lives in Wenzhou last weekend and wrecked the image of China’s high-speed rail network.
On Wednesday the Beijing News posed three direct questions across an entire page challenging the government’s handling of the tragedy, disregarding a blunt official directive that their reporting of the tragedy should not “question”, “elaborate” or “associate”.
The accident has highlighted the role China’s rapidly growing microblogs serve as part newswire, part complaints forum for citizens.Beijing aspires to censor microblogs, but the controls often prove no match for either the speed or volume of outraged chatter.
Suggestions that the authorities were were crushing and burying the damaged carriages were first posted on Sina Weibo, China’s leading microblog service.
Another Sina Weibo user has posted pictures of luxury watches sported by China’s railway minister at various public occassions, further fanning the flames of public outrage.
While traditional media are instructed not to pick-up reports of local unrest that are routinely publicised via microblogs, the rail crash has captured national attention in a way that journalists at state newspapers said forced them to cover it aggressively.
“We got sucked in right away,” said a reporter dispatched to the scene of the crash by a Beijing-based newspaper. “I took this job because I want to be on the front line when something happens.”
“We are a commercial enterprise,” added an editor at Beijing News. “We need to produce a paper that has what people want to read.”
The censors also warned the media against investigative reports or commentary, suggesting that they instead focus on how people will overcome the tragedy with love.
The 21st Century Business Herald instead ran a story on Wednesday questioning delays in the official investigation. The paper’s website also ran, under the headline ‘Hymn charts’, a selection of enthusiastic and boastful remarks government officials had made in the past about Chinese bullet train technology and safety.
Wen Jiabao, China’s media-savvy premier who is regularly employed to burnish the government’s image with high-profile displays of sympathy for disaster victims, is due to fly to Wenzhou on Thursday.

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