After Deadly Train Crash in China, Critics Claim State Cover-Up (Updated)

Public outrage at the government’s response to the Wenzhou train crash has not ceased, and many now suspect a cover-up. Time reports on the propaganda directives issued to Chinese media and websites after the crash (translated by CDT), and the public’s response:

Despite the warnings, many journalists and bloggers are raising questions about the conflicting details of the accident.

The initial death toll issued immediately after the crash was 35. The next day it climbed up to 43 with the government claiming to have dug out eight more bodies. Strangely, however, on the third rescue day the count actually went down to 38. Many also say such low final death toll is impossible. Only three more have been added to the initial 35, but the general consensus is that there should be tens if not hundreds more considering four out of the eight crashed cars plummeted down the 49 ft high bridge. Also, the state media said the first train got struck by lightning and stopped functioning before the second train came crashing. Some question the malfunction was not notified to the second train.

These are only a few of the many eerie uncertainties about the accident. Many suspect a serious state cover-up. Victims and families are enraged, and distrust of the government is on a steep rise.

David Bandurski of China Media Project writes in the New York Times:

Over the last several days, however, Chinese have insistently pushed the Wenzhou tragedy front and center, refusing to accept the government’s rationalizations and distractions. Using Twitter-like platforms on an unprecedented scale, people have clamored for answers to a hornet’s nest of questions.

How was the accident caused by lightning? Why was the train behind not aware there was a train in front? Why was the rescue effort halted so soon? Why was the wreckage piled up into shallow pits before there had been a proper investigation into the accident’s cause? Why has a list of victims not been made public?

Magazines and newspapers have followed suit, reporting boldly on the facts and pressing for answers.

At the very heart of all of these questions — and indeed of the tragedy itself — is a government that refuses to be held accountable for its decisions, and that admits no criticism when criticism might make the difference between bold vision and monstrous folly.

Update: The New York Times also reports on the power that the Internet has had in helping netizens defy censorship orders from the government, with a record 26 million messages on the topic being sent by microblog:

The swift and comprehensive blogs on the train accident stood this week in stark contrast to the stonewalling of the Railways Ministry, already stained by a bribery scandal. And they are a humbling example for the Communist Party news outlets and state television, whose blinkered coverage of rescued babies only belatedly gave way to careful reports on the public’s discontent.

While the blogs have outed wrongdoers and broken news before, this week’s performance may signal the arrival of weibos as a social force to be reckoned with, even in the face of government efforts to rein in the Internet’s influence.

The government censors assigned to monitor public opinion have let most, though hardly all of the weibo posts stream onto the Web unimpeded. But many experts say they are riding a tiger. For the very nature of weibo posts, which spread faster than censors can react, makes weibos beyond easy control. And their mushrooming popularity makes controlling them a delicate matter.

Saturday’s train disaster is a telling example — an event that resonated with China’s growing middle class, computer-savvy, able to afford travel by high-speed rail, already deeply skeptical of official propaganda.

See also: “Train Crash Proves Debacle for China’s Propaganda Machine” by Adam Minter for Bloomberg.