Chinese rail crash coverage shows limits of press freedom there

Tuesday morning (Chinese time) I saw a CNN report in my hotel room discussing the rising anger in China about the high-speed rail accident and noting microblog (Weibo) posts stating that the government had told the media not to question the government's version of the accident (train stalled because hit by lightning). The report also noted questions in the Weibo world about why the authorities had the derailed trains quickly torn apart and buried by earthmoving equipment.

CNN is available in hotels and to people who have satellites, which are technically illegal but which large numbers of people have anyway. Sometimes, when CNN reports from China, the screen suddenly goes blank. However, these reports were broadcast. The accident was the lead story on the Chinese-language morning news.

After listening to the CNN report while lying in bed, I picked up a copy of the government-owned China Daily at breakfast. (Readers of The Washington Post or The New York Times may recall the recent paid ad supplements China Daily has put in those papers; the paper now also publishes each day in the U.S. Here is a link to their website, which unfortunately does not run full-text versions of their articles.)

The accident was again a big story, on the front page and with three additional articles on page 3. The coverage, again, says a lot about both the relative freedom in China (probably surprising to most Americans) and the limits of that freedom.

The headlines of the three page-3 stories were: "Hasty burial of wreckage sparks suspicion," "Unanswered questions over rail dispatch system," and "Public wary of high-speed railway." Hardly sounds like the press of a totalitarian country. The articles have an interesting tone -- sort of "Here is what the critics are saying, and here is how the government is responding."

Perhaps readers will get a good feeling if I quote from part of one of the articles:

"Although a spokesman for the Ministry of Railways said on Sunday that China's high-speed rail technologies are advanced, passengers have not regained confidence in the service after Saturday's deadly accident. “We still have confidence in it,” [the spokesman] said. But his reassurance seemed to have little effect on the public's shattered confidence... Concerns were...raised about the high-speed trains developed solely by China... According to an online survey by ifeng.com, more than 54 percent of 251,000 people polled said they would not take high-speed trains, at least in the short term. Only 15 percent said they believed the service was safe."

Incidentally, I am just now hearing in the background in my hotel room a live broadcast on CCTV of President Obama's speech to the nation on the debt ceiling. You can hear Obama's voice in English, and there is a voice-over providing real-time translation.

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