Chinese papers defy ban on negative coverage of train crash


IN AN unprecedented act of defiance, some leading Chinese newspapers have ignored a ban on negative coverage of the Wenzhou bullet train crash and have run explicit or carefully masked criticisms of the government’s handling of the disaster.

Newspapers were told on Friday to avoid all mention of the crash “except positive news or information released by the authorities”, but some papers were prepared to risk censure to run stark stories.

The Economic Observer, a highly respected business weekly, ran an eight-page special on the crash, featuring a bleak photograph of the wrecked bullet train overlaid with a blood-red logo of the railway ministry.

“No miracles in Wenzhou”, it said. On the bottom of the page was an editorial written in the form of a letter to Xiang Weiyi, a two-year-old girl discovered alive in the train wreckage 21 hours after the accident that killed her parents, after the search effort had officially been called off.

“Yiyi, when you grow up, 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?” ran an emotional editorial below.

The Beijing Newsran a front-page story about the breakage at the Palace Museum in Beijing of a piece of pottery from the Song dynasty. Hardly earth-shattering stuff, until you start noticing the parallels between this innocuous event and the crash in Wenzhou.

The bowl broke into six pieces – six train carriages were derailed in Wenzhou – and the accident happened because data was wrongly entered. The Palace Museum was “very distressed”. The news was announced days late and the museum denies a cover-up.

The report ran above a photograph headlined “China’s Speed”, which shows Chinese swimmer Sun Yuan breaking the world record at the World Championships in Shanghai, but which can also be read as a comment on the high-speed rail obsession at government level.

China’s worst high-speed train accident on July 23rd, which killed 40 people and injured scores, dominated the front pages last week, with much of the coverage of the crash strongly critical of the government’s attempts to boost economic advance at all costs.

Even the Communist Party’s official organ, the People’s Daily, said China did not need GDP growth smeared with blood.

The ban on negative coverage came after premier Wen Jiabao visited Wenzhou to pledge transparency and openness, promising to punish those responsible.

There were similar outpourings of anger after the poisoning of infant milk formula in 2008, but this time the outrage is being vented on the popular Weibo microblog service, where the rail crash was the top trending story.

“If the media trend is to comment only on the kindness of Wenzhou people, on the bravery of soldiers rescuing people and how hardworking the rail ministry is, then it is a faceless thing, an absolute shame,” one comment said.