Note: this post was updated July 28, 2011. . .
High-speed trains and high-speed social media – the dramatic increase in the speed of China’s trains over the past four years seems to be paralleled by an equivalent increase in the speed and use of social media to communicate and protest government actions within the country. China’s economy-on-steroids has lead to massive building projects including a high-speed rail network that went from zero kilometers of track and construction sites back in 2006 to 4,576 kilometers of high-speed lines and equipment by March of this year. And official plans are to have 16,000 kilometers in place and 2015.
But the accident last weekend involving two high-speed trains on a bridge that left 39 dead and 100′s injured has opened fissures in the carefully managed facade of a well-organized society with no room or tolerance for dissent. Remarkably, protest over the official pronouncements, the government’s handling of the event and charges of a cover-up have been all over the Twitter-like service Sina Weibo. A Wall Street Journal article yesterday noted that the crash has been the most discussed topic for three days in a row and the Party censors have yet to stifle the criticism.
The stakes are extremely high in this incident, with more than just domestic production at stake (perhaps the wired generation there realizes this?). The China Railway Construction Corp. has 2 billion dollars in export orders including portion of a line in Saudi Arabia between Mecca and Medina and a new line in Malaysia. The directness of the social media criticism is striking with people pointing out inconsistencies in the government’s information, charges of acover-up of evidence and the uproar over a young girl who was saved inside one of the train cars long after rescue efforts had been called off. Online, officials are being called out for their incompetence and the speeding train has become a metaphor for Chinese society as a whole. Moreover, members of the press are being influenced by the online discussion (no surprise there for those of watching the Media in the West). According to the China Media Project, this is what happened at a press conference yesterday:
When Wang (Wang Yongping (王勇平), the Ministry of Railways spokesman) was asked yesterday how it was possible that a five-year-old girl was found alive after officials had declared an end to the search and rescue, Wang responded: “That was a miracle . . . ” Shouts erupted among the reporters, “It is NOT a miracle! It is NOT a miracle!”
The Media Project also shares some of the propaganda directives leaked online (in itself, a radical enough act). Here’s a small portion of what the press was supposed to do officially:
On the Wenzhou train collision accident, various media must report information from the Ministry of Railways in a timely manner, media from various regions must not send reporters [to the scene] to report the story, and child papers and magazines as well as websites must especially be managed well . . .
Latest demands on the Wenzhou train collision accident: 1. Figures on the number of dead must follow numbers from authoritative departments; 2. Frequency of reports must not be too dense; 3.More reporting should be done on stories that are extremely moving, for example people donating blood and taxi drivers not accepting fares; 4. There must be no seeking after the causes [of the accident], rather, statements from authoritative departments must be followed; 5. No looking back and no commentary. . . .
From now on, the Wenzhou train accident should be reported along the theme of ‘major love in the face of major disaster’. No calling into doubt, no development [of further issues], no speculation, and no dissemination [of such things] on personal microblogs! . . .
The phrase is priceless: “and no dissemination . . . on personal microblogs!” Bloomberg News says the crash could be a turning point for the Chinese economy, forcing the government to slow the pace of growth. That may be, but if so China is changing faster than we realize, and social media may be both a symptom and part of the underlying dynamic driving the change.
July 28, 2011 Update . . .
The New York Times ran a story today (July 28th) on the role of the Chinese blogging services in sharing the story and in countering the accounts in the official news media. A couple of interesting points:
- The posts are limited to 140 characters but since many words in Chinese can be expressed in a single character, posts can convey much more content in comparison to Twitter.
- 26 million messages have been posted on the tragedy. Sounds like a lot (and it’s probably a staggering number) but some comparison data would help.
- Bloggers can comment on and forward the posts of other users – and add images and video attachments. The latter offers a quick way around censors as screen-shots of deleted posts can still be shared as file attachments. In other words, this is harder to stop than Twitter (which would be difficult enough to control).
- The government may be letting this happen so that it serves as a kind of social safety value, deflecting anger that could come out in more direct and threatening ways.
A comment: I find the last point very plausible but it still leads to one of two conclusions: either the government does not grasp the power of social media (which, by the way, I think they do), or they are finding themselves forced to let a relatively free dialogue flourish. If the latter, then they’ve pretty much decided to ride the back of tiger and it is entirely unclear how plan on keeping this check.