On the evening of July 23, news broke on China’s microblogs that a collision and derailment occurred on high-speed rail tracks between the boomtowns of Taizhou and Wenzhou, killing at least 39 people.
Less than 48 hours later, Chinese internet users were horrified and infuriated by images of the damaged train cars being chopped up and buried. For a Chinese public that had, even before the accident, become fed up with the corruption related to the country’s outrageously expensive high-speed rail lines, the burial suggested a cover-up of defects in the rail system’s infrastructure.
In the days since, China's propaganda managers have been learning a lesson American politicians know well (but don't always heed): the cover-up is often worse than the crime.
For six decades, the Central Propaganda Department had virtually complete control of the government's image and -- when deemed necessary -- covered up its mistakes with little public backlash. But that sense of immunity has eroded. Today, department officials find themselves competing with Chinese bloggers, microbloggers and increasingly independent -- and ascendant -- journalists who are enraged with the government's latest case of incompetence and efforts to control public criticism of it.
On July 27, the nationalist newspaper Global Times wrote:
Nowadays, almost all public events raise serious questions, but in the face of these, authorities often react reluctantly and ambiguously. Such an attitude causes more damage to the image of the government than the accidents themselves.
Since 2010, anger over the government's ambitious plan to create the world's largest high-speed rail network has slowly simmered on the internet. Before the rail lines opened to the public, Chinese journalists, bloggers and microbloggers raised questions and complained about its safety and the corruption related to its construction. The 1380-kilometer, Beijing-Shanghai line experienced several major delays and mishaps within its first two weeks of operating, quickly provoking ridicule online.
But public frustration with the government over high-speed rail didn't reach a boiling point until now.
When the accident happened outside of Wenzhou, the propaganda department responded with a predictable list of orders for all media outlets. The list, which was quickly leaked onto the internet, read in part:
The latest directives on reporting the Wenzhou high-speed train crash: 1. Release death toll only according to figures from authorities. 2. Do not report on a frequent basis. 3. More touching stories are to be reported instead, i.e. blood donation, free taxi services, etc. 4. Do not investigate the causes of the accident; use information released from authorities as standard. 5. Do not reflect or comment.
Ordinarily, these government directives are observed, or journalists elect to stay silent on the relevant matter. In this case though, the majority of Chinese media, including state-owned mouthpieces, bucked the official orders and directly challenged the government.
The devastating event tapped into a reservoir of frustration with everything China's high-speed rail lines had come to symbolize: corruption, official arrogance and an overwhelming sense that China’s newfound wealth isn’t being spent in the interests of the masses.
Liu Junning, a reformist political scientist who has run afoul of the authorities in the past, tweeted on the microblog Sina Weibo:
Someone urged that the Minister of Railway be dismissed from his position, while I suggest that the Ministry of Railways be revoked, because it is a nest of corruption whose purpose is political achievement and not the people's well being.
The most remarkable criticism came from establishment voices, which ordinarily support government propaganda goals.
One such outlet is the China Youth Daily, an official mouthpiece of the Communist Youth League and a key power base for Chinese President Hu Jintao. Shortly after the accident, it wrote:
The public is worried about the safety of the high-speed rail system. The Ministry of Railway replied that ‘the technology of China's high-speed railway is advanced.’ But this is not very convincing … Railway safety is not a problem of whether or not the technology is high or low. Rather, it is closely related to daily management and human factors.
Cao Lin, a China Youth Daily news commentator -- known for his outspoken comments on his Sina Weibo account -- tweeted:
Up until now, the Ministry of Railways has never done one thing to make us feel that they are making up for their faults … They sent a spokesman who seems to enrage the public … They announced the search and rescue results in a rush without caring for those you are still alive in the wreckage … They persisted in promoting the advancement of China’s high-speed rail beside the bones of the dead.
Zhao Chu, the patriotic editor of Military World -- a publication obsessed with, among other issues, modernizing China’s military -- agreed. He took to his Sina Weibo account to carp:
What people have seen in this serious railway crash is nothing different from the past: giving orders, making a show and treating the bodies of victims and their loved ones in a rude manner.
Of course, progressive voices joined conservative ones to vent their anger. The Beijing News, an influential and liberal newspaper, directly questioned the government's credibility after the crash:
The reconstruction of credibility should start from the first second in dealing with the crash. In this process, if the disposition of a relevant department is inappropriate, the people’s mistrustful mood will spread further ... There is the problem of burying the train cars. The spokesman of the Ministry of Railways said 'the main reason is to facilitate the rescue,' but he revealed at the same time that it was not a decision from the railway department. Then who has made the decision and why should the cars be buried?
In the southern city of Guangzhou, the notoriously independent Southern Metropolis Daily, a paper that has often clashed with local and national interests, offered a brutal backhanded compliment to the Railway Ministry:
Undoubtedly, their improper words and deeds add fuel to the flames of the people’s anger. But in fairness, no one, not even someone with the lowest IQ, would choose to challenge the public at this particular point in time.
The Southern Metropolis Daily has a history of irritating the government. But prior to the accident, it’s hard to imagine it -- or any other Chinese news outlet -- so directly questioning the intelligence of the Central Propaganda Department.
In this instance, at least, the government censors and propagandists have lost the public relations battle to the media and the people. Perhaps they are hoping, like a patient parent, that the crying will stop, the tantrum will exhaust and the lines of authority will be restored.
After all, it’s an approach that’s worked well in the past.
(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
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Adam Minter at email@example.com