Some Critiques on the News Coverage about the July 23rd Bullet Train Crash

[Editor’s note: The following five articles are written by the 4th Media’s three reporters and two interns. Individual author’s peculiar point of views expressed in his/her article is not necessarily identical with that of the 4th Media.]


Role of the people’s traditional media

By Ma Xin

Two weeks have past after 7-23 deadly bullet trains crash. The accident has been gradually faded out of our sight along with the time. The victims’ funerals have been held, while their families have accepted relatively appropriate compensation. The investigation of the crash still continues. All issues seem looks like OK.

However, when we reexamine the accident, we could find that there are many things should be worthy of our attention, reflection and improvement during the aftermath of rail crash, especially onto the responsibilities and roles of our traditional media such as newspaper, TV, radio and so on which are often compared to that of online media.

So, what should have been the appropriate roles and responsibilities of the traditional media in the aftermath of Wenzhou rail crash?

There have been ongoing controversies, largely critiques about their roles and responsibilities. One of the most frequent critiques is about their failures of a timely, accurate and objective report.

So some internet users have even said it’s a time to further encourage more active participations, roles and responsibilities of online media in the work of spreading the timely, accurate and objective news as they did in the case of the 7-23 train crash. As well-publicized now, the accurate news on the crash accident has been depended upon the online media to a certain degree.

Throwing off the tragic factors from the accident, it is indeed a very big and important news.

Let us take a look at some of media reflections.

People’s Daily, Guangming Daily, Economic Daily and Jiefangjun Bao’s headlines are all about something else rather than the crash story. The People’s Daily reported the Wenzhou rear-end accident with a small space just in the lower right corner of the second edition.

However, most local newspapers such as evening news, city news and morning post, and so on which usually deal with urban life instead reported the crash news as their headline stories.

Moreover, Qianjiang Evening News, a local newspaper in Zhejiang, is crying out against Ministry of Railways. The newspaper not only criticized the ministry while demanding them to “open up the railway line as soon as possible”, but also raised a question why the ministry cannot publicize the victims’ list since the policy to publicize the victims’ real name has been already enacted upon.

The newspaper’s headline was “life first, repair next!”.

CCTV-2 insisted the reporting of the accident and asked for the responsibility of the Ministry of Railways. But in other CCTV channels, there were only full of government officials’ propaganda-type of statements such as a story of rescue workers who struggle to save survivors, doctors and nurses who also try to save lives, Wenzhou citizens come forward to donate their bloods, etc.

We know they are all lovely and wonderful people. But, while we appreciate those stories, we also do need to know the whole truth together with the latest news about the accident as well.

We are aware there were some reporters who work for the traditional (government) media had insisted reporting on the accident but lost their jobs after all.

We know the mass media, meaning the traditional mainstream media in China, usually identified as Party Organ or as its official mouthpiece, have been playing the role of government’s public relations both with the people and the world.

China’s traditional media, even though they are the government- and/or state-owned official organs and specifically serving the needs of the government, however, we do believe that media, the “supposed-to-be-mass-media” should also be able to serve the needs of “the mass,” i.e., the people whom the Party also “supposed to serve” as well.

Moreover, media’s basic roles, obligations and responsibilities are to spread the news by telling the truth.

Both traditional media and people’s online media should be able to work together harmoniously to transform the traditional media’s present culture, rules and regulations  which haven’t been necessarily praiseworthy due to its frequent failures to meet the needs of the people it supposed to serve.

In some respects the traditional media cannot compete with the new types of online media which seems becoming like a new media movement. For example, the Wenzhou rear-end accident was reported first by the Weibo.

However, there are still unique roles, obligations and responsibilities of the traditional government media the online media cannot take care of as well.

But China Daily criticized the Weibo arguing: “highly emotional early on, together with ungrounded rumors abounded.”

China Daily’s critique may deserve for a listening. However, sometimes we have no choice but to go onto the Weibo-type of online media in order to get the timely, accurate and objective news reports which we often miss from the traditional media.


The Premier’s role at crises and the integrated government leadership

By Yang Jingmin

Since in the nation’s premiership, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has played significant roles to take care of, tackle or solve challenging issues at times of inevitable natural disasters, workers’ unpaid wages, or other small and big crises. He even made personal visits to several migrant workers’ labor issues in order to take care of their unpaid wages. The Premier, especially during the 2008 Sichuan Quake crisis or in many other crises, has been often described as “human face” of the national government or the entire CPC leadership. He is well known for being sympathetic and personable to the plight of ordinary citizens. He seems to have reshaped the image of the government and helped the CPC acquire trust from the people. The Premier Wen even became the cover page figure of 2010 October 18th Issue of Time magazine.

When things go truly wrong in China, the Premier Wen is bound to make an immediate appearance. In 2008, he headed to the airport to board a flight to Sichuan just 90 minutes after the massive earthquake struck there, standing on the collapsed building site to encourage, with his trembling and tearful voice, survivors who still was buried under the rubbles of damaged buildings from the earthquake hold on to life. He put the straw mats on the frozen streets, even earlier than the local Mayor on the highway in Zhuzhou which area was frozen and so the cars stranded there for several days.

On July 28, five days after the train crash near the eastern city of Wenzhou which killed at least 39 people and injured nearly 200 more, Wen visited the area, however. Though late, he comforted victims, pledged an investigation and expressed his confidence in the future of China’s rail system. But some of the victims and their family members turned their anger toward the 69 years-old leader.

In his defense of the late visit, he blamed his unspecified illness. He said: “I am ill. Only after my doctor had reluctantly allowed me to go, I was able to come.” His statement surprised many since information regarding senior government/party leaders’ health conditions have been traditionally kept tight in secrecy from the public knowledge.

However, though his untraditional public admission of the illness made many surprised, that apparently didn’t help much the situation either. His lateness in response to the train crash was blamed anyway. Bombardment on the government’s poor “crisis management and PR” work hasn’t gone away.

It seems China’s “Consoler in Chief” the Premier’s physical presence at the sites of crises seems the best comfort, the best crisis management and a good PR work. He seems to have become sort of the only senior figure representing the national government/party leadership to show up and bring support for the victims, family members and the nation who gravely suffer from all sorts of challenges and crises.

When people challenge and are not happy about his absence even if he said it was due to his illness or some other personal reasons, it looks like he even should have no right to get sick. Some who apparently didn’t trust the words of Premier even dig in to find out his whereabouts which seemed other than what he said in public.

Public usually put their trusts, expectations and wishes onto certain government officials like the Premier who seems to have become the advocator for a more open, transparent and effective government in its relations to the public.

However, sometimes, this openness, as in the case of SARS crisis, can become a two-edged sword. At times the public can play a positive role as some sort of supervisors thereby pushing the government officials become more effective and responsive. However, at other times, too much openness or transparency of senior leaderships’ whereabouts, health information, etc. in media relations to public could lead to unnecessary misunderstanding, confusion, or disappointment about the national leadership.

China has the largest population in the world. It has more than 10 million civil servants in the government. To effectively organize senior government leaders’ schedules and arrange its huge work forces to attend at the peoples’ various needs, particularly at times of crises should be like an art. When serious accidents or natural disasters take place, all the relevant governmental departments should have their own unique roles to play in regard to their public relations, carry out their own responsibilities to meet the people’s needs and correct the mistakes.

The core issue is not either the premier himself shows up at the site in person or not. The real issue should, regardless his presence at the sites of crises, be if the premier’s first and foremost responsibilities can make sure the most effective management of the entire government under his integrated leadership to work, so that the government can handle crisis management effectively, properly and timely.


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

By Anna Varfolomeeva

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”.

“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.


A Bird Out of Cage

By Roger Chaung

The Chinese government has been notorious for its strict control over the press for a long time. The recent ban on coverage of the bullet high-speed collision in all press except the Xinhua News Agency, a propaganda department of the government de facto, inflamed the nation-wide discontent. In response, most of the civil media replaced their headlines with blank or advertisements in order to protest against the manipulation silently.

However, the information about the accident does not remain under the table as the government wished. The government control does restrain all press from releasing “politically incorrect” reports but not the social networks. The micro-blog, functioning as a platform for personal and social information exchange and expression of public opinion, irritates the government again this time and plays the role of a watch-dog of public interests which is normally taken by traditional media in the western countries. The government made efforts to restrict the spread of information on micro-blog but the speed of the spread and the public repugnance against the government turn the efforts in vain.

Ironically, the government had planned on closing down the micro-blog three months ago but also failed. Out of its expectation, the information leaked out before it could make any sudden announcement of the decision and the public reacted vehemently. The government was then compelled to abandon the plan.

Now it becomes even a tougher task for the government to take its grip on the micro-blog for the number of the users is expanding in an explosive fashion. What gives the government a headache is that the micro-blog is unlike any of the traditional media which is constituted by manageable organizations and entities. The micro-blog sphere comprises of individual actions. Thus, no clear target is in sight for the government to effectively regulate. In addition, the government dares not to simply shut the micro-blog down since it could not risk the potential massive protest that comes along. Therefore, the micro-blog becomes a thorn in flesh.

The flourishing micro-blog makes up the absence of a public supervisory power of the society. Owing to unprecedented popular support, the micro-blog seems resilient enough to government repression which has made supervisory traditional media never really exist persistently in China. Undoubtedly, the relationship between this supervisory power and the government would be a soured one like it is in any other democracies. What Chinese government would do to deal with the relationship is essential then.

There is a possibility that micro-blog sphere would evolve into an initial stage of free press atmosphere where a new type of unrestricted internet media could later sprout out if the current development of micro-blog keeps going. Learning from how free press worked in the Watergate Scandal and Vietnam War, the supervisory power protects the public against authoritative rule and manipulation regardless of the nature of states. Ergo, the pressure on the Chinese government would be enormous for it keeps the tradition of covering up the truth, fabricating of facts and autocratic ruling to maintain the stability of both the political arena and society it promotes.

The growth of the micro-blog is rapid and by so far, free press is approaching in fast pace. Hence, the Chinese government is unlikely to quickly get over this sort of media affliction as it did before. However, things may not be so pathetic for the Chinese government since there is an easy relief by its hand. That’s acceptance and reform.

If the Chinese government acknowledges the effects of the micro-blog working as a supervisory power over state actions, it will help the government to win back the public trust because it indicates an open attitude to comments and suggestions that the public has long been demanding from the government, repairing its previous broken image. As long as Chinese government would later turn the hope it gives to the public into audacity to conduct a real reform, the public would be satisfied and a benign cycle will be established as the supervisory power consistently gives momentum to the improvement of government actions.

Besides, acceptance and reform also could streamline the influence of what the Chinese government has an anxiety for, the rumors on the internet. Among all the reports of the bullet train collision, fake reports accounted for an unneglectable number. The backlash and trust crisis that they brought about entrapped the government down in the Tacitus dilemma where excessive suspicion of the government prevails. Consequently, the effectiveness and efficiency of all kinds of government operation was undermined, including the part is, in reality, beneficial to the public.

The reason why rumors could spread so rampantly on the micro-blog is due to the individuality of the blog-sphere. Any individual could post and transmit any information without serious consideration of his social responsibilities and possible impact on the society. Meanwhile it is infeasible for the government seize every individual who spread rumors of different levels of damage to the society. Therefore, no efficacious solution is in the government reach under the current circumstance where a supervisory role of the micro-blog is denied.

If the government admits the status of the micro-blog as a loyal watchdog of the public interests, as the micro-blog gradually grows into a kind of new free press, some liable information resources preferred by the majority will occur on the micro-blog as the spontaneous war against the rumors among the media builds up a natural selection process. Those credited resources could be regarded as new forms of social media. Automatically, they would shoulder the responsibility to ensure the truth of information they released and fulfill their role of guarding the social justice and public interests to live up to the public trust.

The regulation of rumors would then be much an easier job as a result since there are clear targets in sight this time. Moreover, the credibility of those resources naturally cuts down the negative influence of rumors. Nonetheless, the government should never step over the boundaries to over-control those information resources again. What the government is supposed to do is to ensure the loyalty of those resources to the public. With the individuality of the micro-blog, the voices talking to the government would be more diverse and the communication is more transparent for its content is accessible to the public. All in all, the measure removes the two crucial elements for rumors to breed, intransparency and incredibility.

To Chinese government, what needs to be understood is that loosening control does not necessarily lead to the revolt of the public. On the contrary, it possibly would help to gain the imperative public trust. Sometimes, let the bird fly out of the cage is not a bad thing. It probably would make the public believe in the notion of “of the people, by the people, for the people” and bring back a piece of good news.


“Railway Kingdom”: The last bastion of the planned economy fostered by Chinese government

By Xia Xinhong

CHINA’S deadly high-speed train crash may lead to the reform of the ministry that runs the world’s second-largest railway network which employs more people than the US government does and has debts larger than Danish economy.

The Ministry of Railways has always been a “big ministry” in China because of its strategic position in national security. The Communist Party has been relying on railways to speed up troop movements since it came to power. More than thirty years after China began its own “specially characterized market-economy,” the railway industry still remains one of the few “fortresses” of the planned economy.

The reason why the Ministry of Railways is referred to as the “Big ministry” is that it is not only a government body, but also an entity responsible for the railway-related productions and constructions, functioning as a company to some extents. However, simply being a government body and quasi-company at the same time is far from enough to live up to its title. The ministry, which employs 2.1 million people, has its own judicial system. In fact it makes the ministry look like an independent kingdom.

The duality of its role, both as a player and a judge, seems to enable the ministry to attain unjustifiable immunities from legal punishments. The process of collecting evidence and discretion of penalty is under Ministry’s own thumb. As a result, it could become like an untouchable outlaw at worst. For instance, the investigation and judicial hearing of the 2008 Qingdao railway train crash accident were conducted by the Ministry’s own procuratorate. Similar thing happened after the train crash in Zhejiang took place in 2011.

No third party investigation was allowed. Therefore, the so-called investigations and court trials could become meaningless. The compensation itself, in the first place, also shows how ridiculous its system is in regard to the victims’ sake. The ministry has its own fixed compensation policy based upon its own rules and regulation. There seem no room for negotiations for any changes in compensation or any other important matters for the sake of the victims’ survived family members. It is ridiculous.

The centralized management, a lack of transparency and seemingly an unhealthy system have long been controversial. Zhan Zhongle, a professor at Peking University Law School, said “The concentration of power has caused inefficiency and mismanagement, and it’s a hotbed for corruption.”

But the nerve-wracking problem is not about the centralized management or lack of transparency and monitoring, but the absence of control. In this closed and self-administrated system, the ministry only pursues its own interests, staying outside of central control. Even the State Council– China’s highest administrative organ– seems to be unable to control the Ministry of Railways during the aftermath of the Wenzhou high speed bullet train collision.

To be specific, because of the closed and self-administrated system, local government could not interfere in what local railway bureaus do. Once an accident happens, local railway bureaus are responsible for the saving rescue and investigation. The only thing that local governments can do is to assist the railway bureaus, in terms of searching the alive, saving people’s life, sending firefighters to put out the fire and dispatching police force to cordon off the area and maintain the order.

According to the website of China’s Ministry of Railway, the ministry has 14 local bureaus which run all the railway transportation within China. Every bureau governs the transportation and construction of railways within several provinces. For example, the Shanghai railway bureau has 164,000 employees and is mainly responsible for city rail transport and construction tasks of Anhui, Jiangsu, Zhejiang provinces and Shanghai.

The spot of the bullet train crash, which is in Zhejiang province, falls into the jurisdiction of Shanghai railway bureau. Close to the end of rescue operations, when the life detectors showed that there were no living people, the Shanghai railway ministry decided to stop searching and started to pull the ruined carriage off the railway.

Thanks to the insistence of local police on searching, fortunately a little girl named Yiyi was found alive at the last moment. One hour later, the railway bureau ordered to clean up the accident site and destroy ruined carriages and announced that the railway line was restored.

The action aroused people’s criticism around the country. People strongly questioned whether the restoration of the railway line is really more important and urgent than the rescue operation. There is a clear divergence of opinions between the public and the administration on the priority of government work in response to crises. 

The public demands the respect for life while the government desires for the non-stop development. For the public, such kind of disregard of public safety and value of life seems to have reached a point where it can no longer be ignored.

In the past decade, the central government sat and watched the Ministry Railway rise with no opposition. In 2008, Chinese government put a total of 4 trillion dollars in building high-speed railway. Today, high-speed railway has become a serious problem.

These players can manipulate the progress of the economic development, putting social stability and political security at risk by their mistakes. China may still enjoy the glory of its flourish for a while, but in reality it has come to a turning point: now it is the last chance to reconsider the path of development and change the course.

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