Yesterday morning, July 30, CMP Director Qian Gang (钱钢) delivered a “letter from home” on RTHK Radio. Addressed to the journalists of China and Hong Kong, the letter looked back on a tumultuous week of coverage of the July 23 train collision in Wenzhou, full of victories and setbacks. The message of the “letter” was largely positive, remarking how July 29 had marked a rare high point for mainland Chinese media in particular, with bold and broad coverage of the Wenzhou crash and its implications.
But just as Qian Gang’s message was hitting the airwaves, he was watching the weather change online. Strict controls on China’s media had been rolled into force just the night before, with authorities saying that “public opinion inside and outside China has begun to become complex.” A notice demanded that Chinese media immediately cool down their reporting and commentary on the July 23 Wenzhou train crash, and scores of Chinese media had to move frantically to fill the gaps as planned reports on the crash were suddenly off limits.
The official Xinhua News Agency, which less than a week earlier had distinguished itself with a rare professional report asking hard questions about the train crash, now ran an interview with a top official from the embattled Ministry of Railways that was plainly a fluff piece.
Question: Are there serious safety problems with China’s high-speed rail and train system?
Answer: Through many years of development, we’ve made major technological progress in high-speed rail project construction, equipment manufacturing, operation and management and many other areas. But we still face many difficulties and challenges in the midst of this development. We are still full of confidence about the future of China’s high-speed rail system.”
One enlightening bit of coverage that did not see the light of day yesterday was an interview by The Beijing News with Wang Mengnu (王梦怒), a railway engineer and member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences who has long been on record as a major supporter of high-speed rail and was recently included — to the surprise of many — on the list of members of a special investigative team tasked with looking into the causes of the railway tragedy. Wang was plainly clueless about the nuts and bolts of the supposed investigation, raising further questions about credibility.
The Beijing News: Academician Wang, are you at the site [of the accident] now? Can you tell us, what is the preliminary situation with the investigation?
Wang Mengru (王梦ru): I’m not at the scene.
The Beijing News: Where are you? What are you doing?
Wang Mengru: I’m in the suburbs of Beijing. I’m on the road to Zhangjiakou right now. I’m busy dealing with some railway matters.
The Beijing News: Are you not an expert on the special investigative team? Don’t you have to go to the scene to investigate?
Wang Mengru: I’m busy. I don’t think I’ll be going. We’ll see how it goes.
The Beijing News: Well then, how is it you’re a member of the investigative team then?
Wang Mengru: About two or three days ago, I was in a meeting in Chengdu. I received a telephone notice from the State Administration of Work Safety asking me to go and participate as part of the investigative team.
The Beijing News: Do you not want to take part? Or is it something you can’t avoid?
Wang Mengru: I can’t be sure. If I can take part, I will. If I get a [formal] notice or not, either is OK. If I didn’t get a [formal] notice and didn’t go that would be better.
The Beijing News: Why would it be better not to get a notice?
Wang Mengru: Really soon I have to go to Japan for a meeting.
The Beijing News: When is that? Is it railway business too?
Wang Mengru: I have to go on August 3. It’s not this [railway business].
The Beijing News: So what happens if you get a [formal] notice to take part in the investigative team? If you can’t go to the scene you can’t possibly understand the situation, right?
Wang Mengru: Even if I don’t go to the scene I can analyze [the situation].
The Beijing News: Are other experts going to the scene?
Wang Mengru: I’m not really sure. I’m not really in touch with them.
The following are examples of three pages that were to be included in yesterday’s edition of Chinese Business View (华商报) but could not be because propaganda leaders were aggressively applying pressure. The spaces you see empty on these pages are not “sky windows,” or tian chuang (天窗), spaces left blank as a purposefull form of protest — something that happens on occasion in Chinese newspapers. The spaces were waiting for other content, in one case a cartoon, before they had to be pulled altogether.
[ABOVE: This page of Chinese Business View, dropped under pressure from censors, bears a main editorial at top that reads: "The Only Road to Rebuilding the Public's Trust is to Seek Out the Truth." The column to the right of the empty space (waiting for a cartoon for the caption, "When you lie, your nose grows.") is a run-down of different views on the train crisis expressed in other media. The column at the bottom is a piece called, "Citizens Act on Microblogs: Asking Questions is Our Right." The issue of citizen action, of course, is highly sensitive in and of itself. Finally, the vertical column at left includes a number of comments, quite bold, from web users posted on microblogs.]
[ABOVE: The column on the left-hand side of this second page never published in Chinese Business View is by Luqiu Luwei (路丘露微), a well-known journalist for Phoenix Television. The piece is called, "The Importance of an Independent Investigation." At right is an interview with Zhang Qianfan (张千帆), a professor of law at Peking University, in which Zhang talks about the possibility of creating an "special investigative commission" within the National People's Congress, as stipulated in China's constitution. This move, suggested by a number of scholars, including He Weifang (何卫方), is regarded as highly sensitive by the leadership. The piece, called "Or There is the Constitutional Path to Seeking the Truth," also mentions the 2003 Sun Zhigang case, which eventually overturned China's law on detention and repatriation.]
[ABOVE: Finally, this censored editorial page reads: "Fixing the Problem at its Roots Requires 'Major Surgery'. The piece is based on interviews with leading experts, and addresses the urgent need for institutional reform to avoid a repeat of tragedies like the July 23 train crash.]
Our hats go off to Chinese Business View, and to all Chinese media that pushed courageously on this story in recent days. July 29 was a day to remember, a new high point for China’s developing and professionalizing media.
Here is a collage of front pages from newspapers and magazines across the country — both commercial and Party — that show the degree of variety and professionalism that we saw. At the bottom there are also images from China Central Television and China National Radio, both state-run outfits.
We’ll have to watch and see how China’s leaders handle the press in coming days.
Meanwhile, at China’s Ministry of Railways, it’s as though nothing ever happened. There is no news or information about the tragedy in Wenzhou on the ministry’s official website. Nary a mention of the issue of train safety.
As media see their space shrinking on this story, the ministry has stepped up. As Chinese lawyer Yuan Yulai (袁裕来) writes on Sina Microblog today: “The media have been gagged, and now the railway ministry has grabbed the microphone and is speaking all on its own.”
Yuan links to this article, in which a ministry official addresses a number of key concerns surrounding the July 23 collision in an “interview.” He explains, against a sea of evidence previously given by Chinese media, that the rescue effort was never halted before the discovery of a young girl survivor.