Chinese netizens flex muscles over Wenzhou train disaster

August 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

First there was the train crash, then a clumsy attempt at a cover-up, followed by an outpouring of grief and outrage on the internet. Now there’s an investigation and the search is on to find a scapegoat. The Wenzhou bullet train crash has shocked the Chinese public and rocked the Chinese government.

The authorities are now scrambling to seize control of the message but whatever that message may be, chances are many Chinese internet users won’t be buying it. This is after journalists and citizen journalists posted reports, images and video of the crash scene aftermath, especially the bizarre attempt by the rescue authorities to dig a trench and bury an entire train carriage.

As the heavy machinery moved the carriage, it became evident that not all the bodies had been recovered and there’s been deafening speculation on the Chinese internet that the death toll is actually much higher than the 39 killed, as reported in the state media.

The spectacular collision which happened in Wenzhou city in China’s eastern Zhejiang province last weekend is being called the 7/23 disaster. The China Media Project, and other aggregator websites like the Ministry of Tofu, the China Digital Times, the ShanghaiistChinaSmack have been translating and reporting the bubbling wave of anger on the Chinese internet.

Cue another credibility crisis for the Chinese state media and the government in Beijing. Independent journalists were reporting what they were seeing and the Chinese microblogging platforms like Sina Weibo have been flooded with expressions of rage, grief and scorn at the official response to the accident.

Here’s a telling item on China’s Youku video sharing website, via the China Media Project which has been doing an excellent job reflecting events as they are portrayed on the Chinese internet. There’s extensive coverage of the Wenzhou crash here, including these dramatic images posted on social media in China.

All of a sudden, the authorities were put on the defensive. A Ministry of Rail spokesperson gavethis unsatisfactory account of why the carriage had to be buried. The government has moved to increase financial compensation for the families of the dead and injured. An investigation has been launched to find out what and who was responsible.

A Chinese friend says this is all part of a typical strategy to try and placate inflamed public opinion and to restore the government’s often stated aim of social harmony. Social harmony is how the authorities justify their heavy hand on the internet and the independent news media. To outsiders, the most obvious manifestation of China’s heavily censored media environment is the country’s Great Fire Wall.

But what has become clear is that when the authorities mishandle a catastrophe as publicly as this one, there is no hiding from the internet and the scrutiny of millions of Chinese internet users. The bullet train accident is just the latest example of how two large and often conflicting forces are rubbing against each other and creating a great deal of heat.

The seemingly immovable object is the ruling Chinese Communist Party. The bullet train project is a showcase of China’s modernisation and the spreading network of high speed rail is poster child material for the government’s propaganda machine as to how technologically advanced the country is becoming, thanks to the CCP.

But the recently opened Shanghai-Beijing bullet train route has been plagued with technical problems and much satirised on the Chinese internet. Then the Wenzhou crash happened and all of a sudden, the government is faced with a credibility issue over the safety of its high tech, high speed train network and more questions are being asked about the sustainability and speed of the country’s technological and economic progress.

The unstoppable force is the internet. China’s netizens reached 485 million users by the end of June and internet penetration is 36 percent of the population. There’s a long way to grow yet. Mobile is also a big factor with just under 318 million users. China’s internet users are also, by and large, young – over 57 percent of internet users are under the age of 30.

All of this means millions of Chinese are getting their news and information in ways that cannot possibly be prescribed by government censors. The inescapable conclusion is the Chinese internet is now an increasingly anarchic entity that is sprawling beyond the government’s ability to tightly control the message, especially in times like these.

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