August 6, 2011:
Since July 27th, China got another reminder that it no longer can control the news. On July 27th, China's high-speed "bullet train" had a fatal accident, leaving over 30 dead and many more injured. The cause was inadequate safety and communications systems. In this case, one train was halted by a flaw in the signalling system and another came up from behind and there was the collision that sent four train cars off the tracks, and a bridge. The government immediately tried to keep the accident out of the news. This effort failed because of the ingenuity of Chinese Internet users, despite the government ban on Twitter in China. The ban was meant to impede the rapid spread of news the government wanted to control. Given enough time, the state controlled media could get out a story the government could live with. But blog, RSS and other Internet tools have been tweaked to do the same thing Twitter does. This was especially true of “micro-blogs” that quickly distribute the same 140 character messages Twitter does. Not as well, but good enough, and the news the government wanted to control spread uncontrollably. This included pictures and video of the accident, which the government planned to keep out of the news.
Many Chinese are not surprised about this accident. The government is in the process of spending nearly $200 billion (during the first two decades of this century) to expand and upgrade the national railroad system. For years, there have been complaints of corruption and mismanagement. There have been a lot of both, but more of it than the overworked anti-corruption officials can handle. Even though prosecutors regularly convict and punish (sometimes with execution) corrupt officials, there is so much of it that the stealing and mismanagement continues. Often, this criminal behavior kills, as it did with this “Bullet Train” accident. This is very embarrassing for Chinese leaders, because the Japanese have been operating such high speed trains for nearly half a century, and has had one fatal accident (one passenger who got stuck in a door). In China, after only a few years, there are many fatalities.
The Chinese media, despite being government owned, or controlled (via government censors), quickly noted the impact of the story via the Internet, and responded by also reporting the accident, including reports of mismanagement and corruption. After a few days, the government ordered the censors to shut down the traditional media (with threats of arrest and confiscation of privately owned outlets.) This halted a lot of accident news in the traditional media, but there was plenty of amateur reporting via the Internet, and cracking down on that will result in some arrested bloggers, but the reporting will go on. Meanwhile, the traditional media did publish commentary and feedback criticizing the censorship. As a result, the government suffered two black eyes; one for the train accident, and another for their failed attempt to control the news about it. But the government won't give up.