In a tightly controlled dictatorship, the people hear only what the government chooses to tell them.
As the Chinese become more prosperous, technically sophisticated and curious about the sometimes inscrutable ways of the ruling Communist Party, the people are hearing more and more about what the government would rather they not know.
A case in point was the recent collision last Saturday between two high-speed trains outside the city of Wenzhou, killing 39 people and injuring 192, including one little girl who wasn’t found for 21 hours.
The news of the crash was out within four minutes on China’s two large, Twitter-like networks called weibos. While these microblogs spread news of the crash, the official TV networks were providing saturation coverage of the mass killings in Norway.
When the mainstream and heavily censored media finally turned to covering the wreck, the central propaganda office instructed journalists that the theme of their reporting should be “in the face of great tragedy, there should be great love.” And the coverage focused heavily on kindly rescue workers leading passengers from the wreckage.
The Chinese government seemed to want the whole incident to disappear down the memory hole.
The Times said government bureaucrats in Wenzhou ordered local lawyers not to accept cases from victims’ families without government permission. When that quickly got out on weibos, the bureaucrats were forced to rescind the order and apologize.
What happened next was truly astonishing. Chinese railway workers buried the lead car, the one that might have some evidence about the cause of the accidents, at the site. When that, too, got out, they were forced to exhume the car and take it to Wenzhou for inspection.
Usually in a national tragedy, the nation’s leader shows up to express sympathy and reassurance. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao did not, pleading illness, but was forced to reverse himself when photos were posted of him going about his normal duties.
It was not a good week for the government’s propaganda bureaucrats and censors. But the government acted quickly, firing the three senior railway officials who supervised that particular section of track.
The government then acted quickly to name a replacement named An Lusheng, a high official in the railway ministry. Unfortunately, it seems An was the railway official in charge in Shandong province when two trains collided, killing 71 people.
In no time flat, too fast for the censors to head it off, that news was all over the weibos.
Dale McFeatters is an editorial writer and columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.