Chinese Media Resist Curbs on Coverage of Train Crash
Chinese media pushed back against new government restrictions on coverage of the deadly July 23 rail crash, as authorities over the weekend sought to pacify victims' families but offered no fresh explanation for an accident that raised doubts about the integrity of its vaunted high-speed rail project.
The collision of two high-speed passenger trains near the eastern city of Wenzhou killed 40 people, left 191 injured and is proving to be a major political problem for Beijing. In recent days, the government has both pledged transparency and sought to stifle information about the accident.
Over the weekend, Chinese reporters complained about an order issued late Friday night by the Communist Party's propaganda office instructing editors to play down coverage of the accident and emphasize positive news in their weekend reports. That order came just a day after Premier Wen Jiabao pledged that the government would keep the public informed during its investigation, and authorities for the first time blamed faulty signals for the accident.
Some media outlets responded with thinly veiled defiance. The Economic Observer, in a Saturday edition, ran a front-page photo of crunched railway carriages and the headline "Wenzhou has no miracles." That was an unmistakable response to a railway ministry spokesman's characterizing the discovery of a 2-year-old survivor in a wrecked train car as a miracle. The child, Xiang Weiyi, was discovered several hours after official rescue efforts were declared complete.
"When you're grown," said an accompanying essay, written as a message to the little girl who also lost relatives in the crash, "will we and this country we live in be able to honestly tell you about all the love and suffering, anger and doubts around us?"
The Friday night notice left other editors scrambling to redo their coverage plans minutes before printing presses began rolling. "I had written something on the train accident that was supposed to appear on Saturday," said a reporter for one of China's national newspapers. "There were several other pieces about it that were also supposed to run Saturday. In the end, none of them were published."
The Beijing News carried a weather forecast on its front page Saturday after running news of the crash there all week. The newspaper didn't respond to a request for comment Sunday.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association denounced the propaganda office's effort in a statement, saying it "is appalled by such a move and demands that the CCP Propaganda Bureau withdraw this directive and allows the media to report the truth freely."
Efforts to limit scrutiny of embarrassing events isn't unusual in China. But the normally compliant media have sharply criticized efforts to do so after the rail crash.
For instance, when Wenzhou lawyers were issued a notice last week directing them not to handle victims' cases without permission, the order was widely derided in the media. Over the weekend, Wenzhou judicial authorities retracted the statement and apologized for the request, saying the original notice wasn't dispatched through proper channels.
The Internet has been the primary channel for calls to get to the bottom of the accident, especially the popular Weibo microblog service, which was flush with submissions tacitly criticizing Friday night's propaganda order.
Authorities also spent the weekend trying to diffuse pressure from victims' families seeking answers through small demonstrations in Wenzhou.
After promised compensation was almost doubled late last week, families of at least 15 victims accepted the 915,000 yuan, or $143,000, payment, according to Xinhua. But just as many families are apparently still holding out, despite the compensation rise from 500,000 yuan originally.
Premier Wen appeared to sanction more scrutiny last week, appearing at the site of the crash after visiting victims' families and saying the government would pursue a "thorough probe." He assured that "the entire course of the investigation will be open and transparent."
The government, meanwhile, gave no new explanation of how the accident happened.
The accident undermined one of Beijing's most vaunted technological projects, sowing widespread doubt about the government's repeated pledges to ensure quality and safety of products, and raising doubts that China's $300 billion rail expansion can be the basis for a major export industry.
Shanghai Railway authorities said last week that before the crash a signal failed to turn to red from green after lightning struck, and minutes later a fast-moving train plowed into a nearly stationary one, sending train cars 15 meters to the ground.
Some senior railway bureau officials were fired in Shanghai, where controls over the Wenzhou tracks are centered, in the hours after the accident.
Authorities later directed blame toward Beijing National Railway Research & Design Institute of Signal & Communication, which has business ties to General Electric Co. of the U.S. The Chinese company expressed "deep" sorrow about the loss of state property and individual lives and said, "We will shoulder our responsibility, accept the deserved punishment."
Xinhua later quoted an official at Beijing National Railway Research, Tian Zhenhui, as suggesting that the company was only one of a number that made equipment used on the line, that the issues were "technical" and that complete answers about the cause of the accident aren't possible until the investigation is complete.
GE late last year unveiled plans for a joint venture with Beijing National Railway Research, one of the major agreements of a $2 billion GE China investment plan. In the days after the accident, GE said none of its equipment was in place at the accident scene. On Sunday, a GE spokesman reiterated that none of the company's signaling equipment is on China's high-speed rail network, so it had no connection with the accident. The spokesman, Robert W. Donahue, said GE is monitoring the situation and will evaluate the venture in coming weeks.
According to last November's statement from GE, it planned a 50-50 joint venture with Beijing National Railway Research "to supply railway and urban transit signaling systems."
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal around the time of that announcement, GE Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt said cooperating with Chinese companies on high-speed rail represented an area where GE "might be able to leverage technology from China to open up new global markets," including the U.S.
In recent weeks, GE executives have suggested that delays in U.S. adoption of high-speed rail have pushed back estimates of when their ventures in China might begin producing that anticipated revenue.
Sue Feng in Beijing contributed to this article.