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Chinese coverage of train crash muzzled


Relatives of the victims of China's train crash parade with a banner demanding the truth about the accident that killed 40 and injured 192 during a protest at Wenzhou South Railway Station on July 27.

By NBC’s Bo Gu
BEIJING – After a week of unusually outspoken outrage among the Chinese public over a high-speed train crash, Chinese authorities imposed a news blackout on the subject over the weekend. 

For about a week the Chinese media enjoyed unprecedented freedom with reports on the deadly train crash in the eastern Chinese city of Wenzhou that killed 40 people and injured nearly 200.

Social media, especially the many Chinese equivalents of Twitter-like microblogs, buzzed with millions of messages questioning why the accident happened, whether or not rescue efforts had been botched and if the investigation was jeopardized by the train cars being buried shortly after the accident. Even state-run media ran reports critical of the powerful Railways Ministry and that questioned the government’s handling of the accident. 

But the brief flurry of “free speech” didn’t last long.

Late on Friday evening, the propaganda authorities imposed a media ban on the train crash, forcing newspapers nationwide to pull their pages of coverage at the last minute. Investigative reports and commentaries were no longer allowed to be published – only positive news or information released by the authorities.

As one tweeter @twccl wrote on his Chinese Twitter page, "for the last 20 years, it has proved to be a joke every time you think freedom of speech in the mainland has become more tolerated."

Angry journalists and editors complained about having their stories pulled from the front page and posted their ditched pages on microblogs instead. “They can be so shameless…One night, all the media, including newspapers, Internet, print, video, are ordered to delete, scrap, be muzzled,” Gao Xubo, founder of the ChinaRFL web site wrote on his microblog. “This is humiliating to Chinese history and to Chinese people. This is one of the most notorious nights in human civilization. We give condolence for ourselves.”

People in China weigh in on the government's response to the high-speed train crash that killed 40 and injured 192.

‘A nest of corruption’
The outrage over the train crash had made citizen-journalists out of relatives and friends of victims.

Yang Feng, a young man who lost five relatives, including his mother and his pregnant wife, gathered more than 160,000 followers on his Sina.com microblog in just a few days.

Yang spoke directly to Premier Wen Jiabao, and demanded a thorough investigation into why his relatives were not found until 30 hours after the crash.

People have been particularly outraged that the Railways Ministry, which is responsible for overseeing high-speed rail transportation, was also handling the investigation and compensation for victims and their families. Several critics called for the entire organization, which has controlled China’s railway system exclusively for decades, to be disbanded.

He Weifang, an outspoken law professor from Peking University and a long-time critic of the government, published an open letter appealing for the disbandment of the Railways Ministry. "It’s not humane to let the one who made mistakes investigate how he made the mistakes and how much responsibilities he should take," He wrote.

Liu Junning, a politics scholar at the China Culture Study Institute, wrote on his microblog that the Railways Ministry is "a nest of corruption that only focuses on political achievements instead of serving the people."

Relatives of victims were particularly incensed by the fact that the ministry demanded to see a cremation certificate before they could be compensated, even though it had insisted on burying one of the train cars involved in the accident just one day after the crash.

Chang Ping, a journalist who was fired just a few months ago for his frank columns criticizing the government, posted a furious message on his microblog that was later forwarded far and wide: "This is the logic of robbers. As long as someone is confirmed dead, their relatives should be compensated. What has it to do with the Railways Ministry, whether the victims are cremated or buried or put in a crystal casket? You already killed them, and you want to make sure they are burned to ashes? Are there any murderers in this world more professional than you?"