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Internet Drives Outrage Over Disaster in China

BY Nick Judd | Friday, July 29 2011

The aftermath of a bullet train crash in eastern China over the weekend is yet another example of the Chinese government's weakening grip on control of public access to information, shaken loose by scandal after scandal placed under the scrutinizing eye of Internet users, Reuters reports:

China's state-run media, initially ordered only to write positive stories and not question the official account, had by mid-week begun to ignore those directives and turn their invective on the Ministry of Railways. On Friday, Chinese newspapers continued to thunder against the ministry.

"Unless the Ministry of Railways abandons its arrogance, it will forever remain off the list of those the public trusts," said a commentary in the Southern Metropolitan Daily, a popular tabloid published in the southern province of Guangdong.

"Given that trust has already fallen to zero, it will be very difficult for people to believe that the railways apparatus can mend itself."

There are many other examples, both inside and outside of Chinese media, of anger at the government's handling of a crash that killed at least 40 people and injured nearly 200 more. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao took days to visit the crash site; when he arrived, he told reporters that he had been delayed due to illness. Given that the government had recently gone so far as to block some search terms from search engines in order to banish to the Deep Web all discussion that might pertain to former president Jiang Zemin, who was rumored to be in ill health, this was met with suspicion: Why go so far to keep one party official's health out of the news only for another, not long after, to use his to make headlines?

The Telegraph chronicles rising suspicion of Wen's remarks. Here's their Malcolm Moore, filing from Shanghai:

Within hours, photographs of him in seemingly perfect health at various functions over the past week had been posted on the internet and Mr Wen was accused of being a liar. His tears at the sites of various disasters over the years had already earned him the mocking title of China's "Best Actor".

After scandals over melamine-contaminated milk in 2008 and the poor construction of schools that may have exacerbated the effects of a major earthquake in 2010 in Sichuan province, as well as a trickle of peccadilloes in small governments throughout the country, the Chinese government's ability to suppress negative stories has eroded, these reporters observe.

"What has changed over the past year," Moore writes, "is partly the growing inability of China's leaders to control free speech, both in the traditional media and over the internet."

At least, that's the idea; this has been the story after each of those past crises, yet the watershed moment in which Chinese media breaks free of close government control seems to have yet to arrive.