Is China’s bullet train tragedy also a PR disaster?

China Wenzhou train accident is seen by foreign Media not just as a human tragedy, but as a PR disaster for the governmental officials, handling the case.

No transport accident has caused such an outcry in China as did the collision on July 23rd of two bullet trains, in which at least 39 people died. With the accident and the railway ministry’s crass response, public grievance is widespread.

This is how the tragedy happened. A high-speed train from Hangzhou stalled after being hit by lightning, and lost power. It was then rear-ended by a train originating from Beijing. The crash sent four carriages from the oncoming train tumbling 66 feet off an elevated track. Hundreds were trapped under the debris.

However, after the accident the wrecked train was buried quickly. This action of the local authorities spurred spreading of rumors in the country. Officials claimed that it was done to protect technology. But in public’s view, government’s priorities in the accident looked strange, and to some it looked as if the government was trying to cover up some evidence.

The key role in the whole scandal growing was played by Chinese Twitter-like micro blog, called Weibo.

“Why have the people been robbed of the right to know? How long do they want to hide,” said one comment on Sina’s Weibo site. “We won’t accept being treated like idiots.”

The angry and instant tide of Internet opinion was making it harder for officials to handle the case. Public wants to know the truth and find out who are responsible for that tragic accident.

“The only path to reestablishing public confidence is thoroughly investigating the truth,” was the title of one quashed editorial in China Business View.

The Committee to Protect Journalists said today that popular outcry in China at the crash is a sign that propaganda orders cannot suppress public opinion.

Western Media quickly caught up the rumors and the angle of many stories in foreign newspapers switched from the human tragedy to media control, censorship and cover ups.

“Censorship pressure” Chinese newspapers had to go through after the government “forbid negative commentaries” regarding the railway disaster is one of the hot topics nowadays.

It seems that Western media also argued Chinese government’s PR behavior regarding the consequences of the crash and how to handle them. It definitely was a PR disaster.

Many Western newspapers tried to find the signs of “the order to report on the positive developments to solve the crash consequences only” ignorance.

British Independent ran a story about the recent headlines of Chinese newspapers and looking for the hidden meaning in them.

They noticed that the Economic Observer, a highly respected Chinese business weekly, published an eight-page special on the crash, featuring a bleak photograph of the wrecked train overlain with a blood-red logo of the Railways Ministry, reminding people of victims.

The Beijing News ran a story on its front page about the breakage at the Palace Museum in Beijing of a piece of pottery from the Song Dynasty. Its coded message was clear: the bowl broke into six pieces – six train carriages were derailed in Wenzhou in China’s worst rail accident – and the museum accident happened because data was incorrectly entered by a technician. The Palace Museum was “very distressed” by the incident – and denied a cover-up after the news was announced days late.

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 could also be read as a comment on the high- speed rail obsession at government level.

“The party’s information management system is broken,” said Kerry Brown, head of the Asia Programme at Chatham House, the international affairs think-tank. “In an era of revolution in information technology, we are seeing a central state strategy that has fallen by the wayside.”

In an unusually scathing editorial published in both its English and Chinese versions, the state-run Global Times on Wednesday said the government’s handling of the accident aftermath was a “public relations disaster”. favor

“The relationship between the government and the public is like that of a ship and water. Water can keep the ship afloat or sink it,” it said.

By Anna Varfolomeeva, an International Reporter and an Editor at the 4th Media

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