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China's Government Struggles With Outcry Over Train Wreck


A high speed bullet train runs past a railway bridge as workers use cranes to lift a wrecked carriage (BELOW) onto a truck after two trains crashed and derailed in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, July 26, 2011

A high speed bullet train runs past a railway bridge as workers use cranes to lift a wrecked carriage (BELOW) onto a truck after two trains crashed and derailed in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, July 26, 2011

The Internet and Chinese state media continue to ask a steady stream of questions about last Saturday's deadly high-speed rail accident. The persistent calls for answers come despite government assurances of a thorough investigation.

And the questioners are challenging the government and its ability to control public opinion.

Caught on microblog

For the past week, the Chinese microblog, China's version of Twitter, Sina Weibo has been a steady source of information, assistance and nonstop criticism of the government's handling of the rail crash.

Just minutes before the accident occurred one Weibo user in Wenzhou posted a note and picture - commenting on how a high-speed train was moving slowly along the tracks like a snail, adding “I hope nothing happens to it.”

Moments after the accident, user Yangjuan Quanyang posted a message calling for help. It said “The train is full of the sound of crying children! We cannot find any of the train's crew! Please help us!”

Public outcry

When the government blamed lightning for the accident, there was a massive outcry online and postings of disbelief. When the Ministry of Railways expressed its sorrow for the accident, netizens mocked the government.

Jeremy Goldkorn, a Chinese online media analyst and founder of Danwei.org, says state media found it difficult to ignore the amount of online criticism.

“By Monday morning there had been such a huge outcry in the Chinese internet and particularly on Sina Weibo about it that as the work week started on Monday the media was, the news media was playing catch up with the citizens reports on the Internet," said Goldkorn.

Seemingly, there is little the government can do to put a lid on [quiet] the outcry. Even its directives to state media outlets to limit coverage and to not investigate or comment on the cause of the accident have been leaked online, and are not being followed entirely.

State media have published strong editorials demanding a thorough investigation.

Mistrust

Much of the criticism has focused on the embattled railway ministry.

In one Weibo survey about the ministry, the choice receiving the most votes was: it is a blackhearted, corrupt ministry that uses the blood of the public for experiments. The second most popular choice: continue to uncover corruption at the ministry and carry out an internal overhaul.

In another survey about why the government buried a locomotive after the accident occurred, the majority of respondants said it was trying to destroy evidence. In an editorial Friday, the China Daily said public opinion led the government to dig it back up.

Hu Xingdou, a professor economics at the Beijing Institute of Technology, says it is difficult for the public to trust the government.

Hu says some government departments and local governments have been telling lies for a long time. They deal with things under the table and refuse to make their administrations transparent to citizens. He says it is extremely difficult for the general public to pursue the truth, and as it continues this way, the government loses almost all of its credibility.

Corruption

The Ministry of Railways was a target even before the accident. In February, the minister was forced to resign because of allegations that millions of dollars were embezzled from the high-speed rail program.

Then there were problems with the high-speed system.

"Just about three weeks ago, at the beginning of the month, the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway opened and ... and in some of the first few journeys through Beijing to Shanghai, some of the trains were delayed," noted Jeremy Goldkorn, "what should have been a five-hour journey ended up taking much, much longer, and people got stuck on cars where the air conditioning had broken down and they weren't given an explanation, and this became something like a little micro-scandal on the Internet, because people were posting photographs and complaints about that."

However, Goldkorn says it is hard to say if the public anger will prompt a re-assessment of the high-speed rail system. He notes that after a milk safety scandal hit China in 2008, there was also plenty of similar commentary online. In the end, he says, it did not seem to change monitoring of the dairy industry and food scandals continue to happen.

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