Category Archives: disasters

“Anger Swells After Floods Kill At Least 37 in Beijing”

The WSJ has a piece up recounting the floods that rocked Beijing this weekend, and the reaction they’re already getting from netizens:

Urban areas of Beijing were hit with an average of nearly nine inches of rain over 16 hours on Saturday — the heaviest the Chinese capital has seen in six decades, according the state-run Xinhua news agency.

The deluge, which caused more than 31 road cave-ins, led to more than 10 billion yuan ($1.6 billion) in economic losses, Xinhua quoted Pan Anjun, deputy chief of the Beijing flood control headquarters, as saying. Even more shocking, at least 37 people died in the downpour, according to a statement released Wednesday night through the Beijing municipal government’s official account on Sina Corp.’s Weibo microblogging service. Of those, 25 drowned, six were killed as a result of collapsed structures, five were electrocuted and one was struck by lighting, the statement said.

News of the storm spread rapidly on social media, where users posted video footage of flooded intersections and where messages of support appeared alongside pointed questions about how a city that spent billions building facilities to host the Olympics could struggle so badly in dealing with a thunderstorm

Among the sharpest criticisms came in the form of a series of photos, posted to Sina Weibo around midnight, contrasting Beijing’s flooded streets with images of sewer systems in other famous capitals, including Tokyo’s massive “Underground Temple” flood prevention system.

“Sewers are not a face-giving infrastructure project,” artist Li Yijia wrote in response to the images, repeating a sentiment widely expressed elsewhere on the site.

“Beijing’s glossy appearance can’t withstand the erosion of a bout of heavy rain,” wrote another Sina Weibo user. “In just a few hours, Beijing is washed back into the old days. The city government hasn’t stopped rebuilding this city, but they can’t even deal with getting waterlogged.”

Beijing isn’t alone on that front- as far as I know, Qingdao is the only Chinese city with a proper sewer system, a legacy of the old German Concession. The bizarre thing is that even these new cities that China is building in the middle of nowhere from scratch still utilize tiny water management systems, not proper sewers. Like the netizens are saying, sewers don’t seem to be face-giving enough to justify their construction as is.

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TibetWatch: April 26

Not as big of a day as yesterday, but a major protest in Derge is definitely news:

About 3,000 to 4,000 Tibetans led by monks protested Wednesday in front of a township police station and government center in China’s Sichuan province, condemning a security crackdown on a local monastery and demanding the release of a nine people who had been detained, sources said.

The protester at the Zogchen township in Dege county in the Tibetan-populated Kardze (Ganzi) prefecture were angry at a series of raids conducted by security forces on the Zogchen Monastery from Sunday to Tuesday, during which monks were severely beaten, interrogated, and taken away, the sources said.

Wednesday’s mass protest was peaceful but protesters demanded that the crackdown should stop and all security forces in the monastery be pulled out.

“They told the officials that if there was no withdrawal, things could turn ugly,” one caller from inside Tibet told RFA. “The people were disgusted that the police could enter the monastery and assault the monks, including one 13-year-old monk,” said the caller, identified as Tashi.

Reuters has news about continuing unrest in Yushu and Jyekundo, where earthquake recovery plans look set to ignore the overwhelming Tibetan majority in the region:

For two years after a cataclysmic earthquake struck a remote and wild part of China’s northwestern Qinghai province, Baobao and 29 other homeless ethnic Tibetan residents occupied the area outside several government buildings to denounce a land grab.

But no officials in Gyegu – known in Chinese as Yushu – would listen to their pleas, said Baobao, 41, a burly Tibetan odd-job labourer, who goes by only one name.

“What we don’t understand is why the officials’ homes can be left alone, but the ordinary people’s homes have to be snatched away,” he told Reuters in the tent he set up next to his home that is still standing.

“There must be two kinds of policies: one for officials and another for ordinary people.”

Land disputes are common across China, but the issue takes on new ramifications in areas dominated by ethnic Tibetans.

An official with the prefecture government said he had no knowledge of the situation.

Officials had first promised Amdo a free house and money in 1995 in exchange for him giving up his herd and relocating to the nearest town. He moved but got nothing in return.

“I petitioned the government to solve my housing problem but there was no effect,” said Amdo, dressed in a sheepskin robe.

Trinley Palmo, 56, another nomadic herder, said the authorities tore down her house in the grasslands after the earthquake, citing safety concerns. Her family was moved into an 80 square-metre (850 sq.foot) brick home in a resettlement area on the outskirts of Gyegu – one of almost 70,000 such households.

An official with Gyegu’s Agriculture and Animal Husbandry Department said resettlement “should not have any detrimental impact” on the nomads’ cultural and religious beliefs.

“Most of the farmers and herdsmen are still in favour of resettlement,” the official, identifying himself by his surname Li, said by telephone.

Many residents said they had seen no benefits. Tashi Nyima, 35 and a former herder, worried about feeding his family.

“If the government policy changes, I would go back to herding,” he said, after trading goods outside a storefront.

After snowstorms last week, Jamdrol said life was tough in the two-room 20 sq. metre tent pitched outside his house. The interior was lined with wooden benches, with strips of carpet on them. His wife, Tselha, was chopping firewood for warmth.

The government may seize his land, but he says he is unafraid.

“I will persist in telling the government the land belongs to me,” Jamdrol said. “Even if they want my life, I’ll never give it up,” he said, moving his finger across his throat.

Finally, Beijing is trying to use the World Buddhist Forum it created to elevate the fake Panchen Lama it created:

China’s disputed selection as the Panchen Lama has espoused Buddhist philosophy in a speech that was his first appearance outside the mainland and showed greater efforts by Beijing to gain acceptance of its rule over Tibet.

The Panchen Lama is Tibetan Buddhism’s second-highest spiritual leader, but followers of the exiled Dalai Lama do not recognise China’s choice.

He spoke at the third World Buddhist Forum in Hong Kong, a showcase for China’s cultural diplomacy attended by more than 1,000 monks, nuns and scholars from 50 countries. China holds the forum every three years and the Panchen Lama’s attendance was aimed at burnishing his religious credentials.

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“China’s Dangerous Tofu Projects”

The Diplomat on why China urgently needs to address their building standards problems:

In July 2010, anger over shoddy construction erupted in an area hit hard by the Sichuan earthquake when a building intended to be a new home for earthquake victims collapsed (or was demolished, according to state sources) just a few weeks before completion.

In November 2010, 53 people were killed in a high-rise apartment building fire caused by an unlicensed welder. And last month, a car accident in Jiangsu Province revealed that a dam built atop of a Yangtze River tributary was filled with reeds instead of steel beams.

Why is the quality of some of these structures so poor? Corruption and graft undoubtedly play a role when project money is skimmed off the top for and by officials, leaving less funding for quality materials, qualified staff, and acceptable workmanship. Additionally, projects are often granted to companies that have more political ties than qualifications. In January, the Beijing Municipal People’s Procuratorate disclosed that bribery and corruption cases increased in 2010, with urban development and rural election issues involved in the majority of cases. From January to August 2011, the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection announced that 6,800 officials had been prosecuted for corruption in infrastructure projects.

But there’s a reason the “tofu project” conversation should be restarted: new measures to combat this problem have recently emerged. After a State Council meeting on January 12 of this year, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection, and Quarantine announced that they would establish a “blacklist” of businesses reported for quality issues and “shoddy practices.”

Ultimately aside from the danger to human life, “tofu projects” create credibility issues for the government, undermining citizens’ belief in the reliability of government to create safe infrastructure.

And the issue also offers an interesting case study of center-local relations, since many of these issues arise at the local level. At this point, there are far too many counterincentives for rapid construction (mostly at the local level) for there to be an effective central response – officials are rewarded for growth, and large infrastructure projects give local governments status. Sadly it will therefore probably take more accidents like those I described to create sufficient political will to clean up and prevent so many of these projects happening in the future.

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“The Case of the Disappearing Shanghai Subway Apology”

A lot of reactions out today concerning the Shanghai subway crash. Luckily no one seems to have been killed, but some pictures circulating online show that many passengers were very seriously wounded. Coming so close on the heels of the Wenzhou crash this may well arouse more popular anger, which makes this story (via WSJ) interesting:

Shanghai’s subway operator was quick to post an Internet apology Tuesday after a subway accident that left about 250 people injured.

Then it was just as quick in taking it down.

Not long after the midafternoon subway accident in central Shanghai, Shanghai Metro, the operator of Shanghai subway system, issued an apology on Sina Weibo, the popular micro blogging service.

“Today is the darkest day in the operation of Shanghai subway,” the Weibo posting said. “No matter what the final reason or responsibility, [we] feel extremely ashamed and regretful for the harm and loss created for the city residents. … No matter how much we apologize, it only pales in comparison with the practical damage [the accident caused]. Still, [we] want to issue our deep apology.”

But the posting was mysteriously deleted shortly afterwards, prompting discussion–and anger–among Weibo users.

Other Weibo users were more cynical. Lawyer Yuan Yulai wrote, “The current [social] system won’t allow normal human feelings.” Another lawyer, Cui Xiaoping, said, “The original statement was deleted because it didn’t follow the [appropriate] propaganda style.”

A couple hours later, Shanghai Metro posted a positive-sounding Weibo message. It said operations will resume and further investigation into the cause of the accident will be conducted. Like most other official statements on disasters in China, it emphasizes how the victims helped each other and how the rescue workers and firemen came to the scene quickly. It ends by saying, “we did not do well. Please believe us, we’ll definitely do better!”

That posting was met with even more furious comments. Weibo user Zetongzhi sarcastically wrote, “Take back your apology. The subway did no wrong. It was the people [on the subway] who were destined for a bad fate.”

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“Land grabbing puts Tibetan lives in danger in quake-hit Kyegudo”

After the Yushu earthquake last year a number of people worried that the formerly Tibetan town would be erased in favor of a touristy Han town- according to Phayul, some of those fears are coming true:

Native Tibetans living in Kyegudo in eastern Tibet’s Kham Province, who were devastated by a powerful earthquake in April last year, are losing their land to a large number Chinese migrants.

Reports from the region say the mushrooming Chinese migrants across Kyegudo, including Jachukhog region, are seizing agricultural lands used by local Tibetans for the past many generations. The lives of Tibetans who survive on agricultural produce from their land are now in jeopardy.

Moreover, the Chinese migrants are hiring other Chinese workers for permanent job to work on their farm land, putting Tibetan residents in danger of completely losing their source of livelihood.

Despite the Chinese government’s claim of making a great reconstruction efforts in the region, the Tibetans have strongly protested the unjust construction plans and confiscation of plum land owned by the Tibetans. For consecutive days from 1 – 3 April this year, a large number of Tibetans gathered in the main town to vent their indignation raising slogans of “we own rights to our land”.

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“Chinese people show frustration over corruption”

American Public Radio has an interview with a correspondent in Shanghai, whose conversations with Chinese citizens about the Wenzhou crash rings extremely true:

Ryssdal: What are people telling you, Rob? When you’re out and about, what do you hear?

Schmitz: Well, two days after the crash, I was in a taxi, and he’s listening to the radio report from the scene of the crash, and he got so angry that he started just yelling at the radio. You know, you have these moments maybe when you’re in the car when you yelled at the radio. That’s what he was doing; he sort of was ignoring that I was there. And then I sort of asked him, I said, ‘Are you OK? What do you feel about this?’ And he felt relieved to be asked this: he just vented to me for about 15, 20 minutes about how corrupt the government was, how this was the government’s fault. And by the time we knew it, we had stopped about five, 10 minutes ago but he was still venting. It was like one of these — as public radio folks like to say — one of these driveway moments.

Ryssdal: Driveway moments, that’s right, except different context. But hang on a minute, because corruption’s nothing new.

Schmitz: No, corruption’s nothing new, but people talking about corruption all the time on the street with each other; journalists challenging officials, state-run press running with stories about this — that is new. Two nights ago, I was chatting with a Chinese friend and he told me he just read the news that the chief engineer for China’s high-speed rail embezzled 2.8 billion. I said, ‘How? Well 2.8 billion renminbi — that’s about $400 million, boy that’s a lot of money.’ He corrected me, he tells me, ‘No, it was $2.8 billion.’ That’s incredible. Later on, I saw it was reported this guy had just stashed the money into Swiss and U.S. bank accounts. And this Chinese official reportedly has run off with the amount of money equal to the GDP of Fiji. So this type of corruption is really unprecedented.

Worth noting, though, that the journalists challenging officials seem to have been reined in. Whether or not their sudden ferocity was approved by other factions in the government seeking to cut the Rail Ministry down to size is up for debate.

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“End of the high-speed myth?”

ChinaDialogue writes more about the problems at the Ministry of Rail here in China, and concludes with a summary of some of their biggest problems:

The results of this investment can be seen everywhere. Railway construction projects abound in China, costing hundreds of billions of yuan every year. The possibilities for profits through that spending are clear, and a complex web of interests has arisen as a result. Many individuals are profiting from high-speed rail. According to a report by 21st Century Business Herald, senior executives in some 10 listed firms involved in the supply of power, communications, signaling, monitoring, locomotive and carriage systems are part of the Ministry of Railways clique.

Liu wanted as soon as possible to achieve his dream of “flight on the ground” for all weathers. His team told the media on more than one occasion: “Chinese high-speed trains will not collide.” The day the Wuhan to Guangzhou line opened, with an average speed of 273 kilometres per hour, ministry spokesperson Wang Yongping again stressed that China’s high speed railways are “world leaders in comfort, safety and speed”.

This also led the railway authorities to believe high-speed rail could continue to grow at breakneck pace.

You can see this in China’s medium- and long-term plans for the rail network. By 2020, China is supposed to have 50,000 kilometres of high-speed rail lines running at over 200 kilometres per hour, while all provincial capitals, except Haikou on Hainan island and Lhasa and Urumqi in the far west, are meant to be reachable from Beijing within eight hours.

These grand ambitions, which will see more high-speed tracks constructed than the rest of the world combined has built over the last 50 years, for a while put the ministry under pressure. But Liu pledged on several occasions that “China’s high-speed rail sector is operating very well overall.”

Five months after Liu was removed from his post, a fatal train crash has put his pledges in a very different light: the safety of high speed rail became uncertain on 23 July – and so did its future. This was reflected in the fierce reaction of the stock market on the first day of trading after the crash. Any company connected to high-speed rail saw sharp falls and even panic selling.

The Ministry of Railways made interest payments of over 40 billion yuan (US$6.2 billion) in 2009, according to a report on transportation development published last year by Minsheng Bank, who warned that in the future that figure could rise as high as 100 billion yuan (US$15.5 billion). The report also predicted that, by 2012, the ministry’s debt to assets ratio would be over 70%. After the Beijing to Shanghai high-speed line opened, the Ministry of Railways decided to cut its speed from 350 to 300 kilometres per hour. Hit with unexpected events like July’s crash, and saddled with an ever-increasing mountain of debt, will the charge of China’s high-speed trains continue to slow down?

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“$2.8 Billion Dollars! China train controversy continues”

People wondering how the high-speed rail network could have ended up such a mess should read this post, scooped by McClatchy writer Tom Lasseter on his blog:

This is shocking. Above is a screen grab from an account registered to Chinese state television on the popular Weibo service (a micro-blogging site akin to Twitter), and verified by Weibo as being a CCTV account. It says that Zhang Shuguang, the former deputy chief engineer at the Ministry of Railways, is accused of having deposits abroad of $2.8 billion. That’s dollars, not yuan. BILLION.

Zhang was removed from his post at the end of February to be investigated for alleged “severe violation of discipline.” The CCTV Weibo post also says that Liu Zhijun, the former railways minister who was fired and is also under investigation, accepted up to 1 billion yuan in bribes, which works out to some $155 million. Previous reports had put Liu’s alleged take at more than 800 million yuan.

Given that both men were instrumental in the nation’s push for high-speed rail, and the ongoing controversy about the July 23 high-speed train crash that killed at least 39, those figures are sure to get a lot of attention. In fact, in the time it took me to type this blog post, that Weibo item was deleted.

No oversight of the project, a gagged media, and blank checks from a government unused to answering questions about where it puts its money. How else could this have turned out?

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“Propaganda bureau starts strangling media coverage of Wenzhou train crash”

It seems that enough has finally been declared enough. Via Shanghaiist:

According to leaked directives from the propaganda department on Friday: “All articles on the Wenzhou train collision are to be put off the homepage with immediate effect. None are to be put on the homepage itself. In the news section, only one article may be placed there, but no commentaries are allowed. Promoting the discussion of related topics on forums, blogs and microblogs are not allowed. Forum sites are to remove all previously promoted articles and blogposts off from the frontpage and mini-sites immediately. All posts, blogposts and microblog posts that do not meet with the requirements of this afternoon’s orders are to be resolutely deleted. All sites are to implement this order with immediate effect, and to complete execution within half an hour. Checks will begin within half an hour.”

All major web portals have already duly complied with the orders, and mini sites specially created earlier for the Wenzhou train collision have all but disappeared.

In a related development, the producer of the CCTV programme 24 Hours, Wang Qinglei (王青雷) is said to have been sacked after the airing of the July 25 show.

As for print media, the Economic Observer was praised yesterday for its bold (defiant?) feature entitled “Is there a miracle in Wenzhou?” even as other newspapers began consciously cutting back on coverage. The ten-page feature included such provocative articles as “What is the Ministry of Railways hiding?”, “Please respect life”, “Where the Ministry of Railways went wrong” and “The Ministry of Railways has a cold steely heart”.

Even so, coverage of the Wenzhou train collision is expected to decline significantly in the print media from now, as the propaganda department cracks its whip and demands stricter toeing of the line.

As news of the media crackdown sparked fury and incredulity, some have called for the media to jointly defy the orders of the propaganda bureau. Zhang Xuezhong (张雪忠), lecturer at the East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai, called on the Chinese media to close ranks and work together to “open a window in the sky” (开天窗) and defend its dignity. He said, that if the media could join forces to act in accordance with their conscience, they might very well be changing the course of history.

Obviously they weren’t going to let that go on forever. We’ll see if their attacks on microblog comments inspire any backlash.

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“China will implode if it doesn’t change its authoritarian ways”

Some perspective on the train crash from Will Hutton at The Guardian, followed by a bold claim:

The official directive from the propaganda bureau was that journalists should not “investigate the causes of the accident” or “question” the official account – that it was caused by lightning. Wreckage was buried to avoid any inspection; compensation claims were initially refused. After all, the party’s legitimacy depends on its capacity to deliver growth, jobs and modernity and the high-speed train network is one of the linchpins on which its claims depend. It was crucial that the crash did not challenge any of this carefully constructed story.

The directive was ignored. For what Qiu Qiming said on CCTV has been said with more fury on the country’s blogs, social networking sites and its two major Twitter-like microblogs, the “weibos”. The tweets began from the crashed train itself, complaining about the chaos, and then spread. “Interest groups and local authorities have placed their desires above society,” tweeted Zhao Chu. “If this continues, there is only one result – rampant terror and blood on the streets.”

Another tweeted: “The whole railway ministry should be closed down. It is a nest of corruption.” In a blog, Zou Yonhua wrote: “How could anyone who is mentally normal believe that China’s rubbish scientific development and research on high-speed rail is Number One in the world? No ordinary people believe that. It is a pity that the party itself swallows the line.”

This is just a tiny sample of the avalanche of such comment – 26 million posts and rising fast – since last Saturday’s disaster. It is jaw-dropping stuff. Although generally the writers are careful to stop short of criticising the party outright – everyone knows about the imprisonments of the Nobel peace prize winner Liu Xiaobo and the human rights activist Ai Weiwei – anyone who goes this far is taking enormous risks with their career and their freedom. But when the People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece, declares that China can no longer generate “blood-smeared” GDP, a rubicon has been crossed.

China, as I once was memorably told by a group of lawyers in Beijing, is a volcano waiting to explode. It is difficult for those not familiar with the country to comprehend the scale of corruption, the waste of capital, the sheer inefficiency, the ubiquity of the party and the obeisance to hierarchy that is today’s China. The mass of Chinese are proud and pleased with what has been achieved since Deng Xiaoping began the era of the “socialist market economy”. But there is a widespread and growing recognition that the authoritarian model has to change, a fact that every disaster dramatises.

China, we are endlessly told by its apologists, is different. The values of the European Enlightenment – tolerance, the health of dissent, the rule of law, freedom of expression, pluralism – are not needed here. Wenzhou is one more bitter reminder; human pain and human instincts for accountability are universal. Moreover, they are the essential underpinnings of the good economy and society. There will be a Chinese Spring. And sooner than anyone expects.

Whoa, curveball at the last second there! I don’t know: some people expect a revolution momentarily, is it sooner than they expect? Something bad happens in China and all the sudden we have predictions that the government will be replaced by next Monday. Like I said, a bold claim.

Everyone who reads this site knows that I think change is inevitable here. But we have to recognize that as much impetus as there is for change, there’s also a counterbalancing effort by the government to bottle it up. The stakes will grow higher and eventually there will be another confrontation, but to say that it’ll end up being a ‘Chinese Spring’ and that it’ll happen sooner than anyone expects… we don’t know what will set it off, which brush fire will end up consuming the forest. It could be tomorrow, or it could be years away. Unless Hutton has a crystal ball, he might want to tone those expectations down a bit.

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“This moved me”

From Laowai Times, a post I couldn’t agree with more. After quoting a news story about the sudden rush of Chinese citizens giving blood after the train crash, he says:

Although I have often been shaking my virtual fist at the government and the CCP in this blog, I hope it’s clear that this is from the position of someone who dearly likes China and Chinese people. I have so often been struck by the kindness and generosity of the Chinese, their friendliness and courtesy, their desire to improve themselves, their prospects and their nation. And so reading about how a call for blood donors “quickly clogged local hospitals” absolutely fitted in with my understanding of China. You can easily picture it, the hospital thronging with men in white short-sleeved shirts, young women in funky tshirts and shorts accompanying their conservatively-dressed mothers, young men anxiously tapping the screens of their smart phones to keep updated, doctors trying to corral this flood, weary nurses in fading uniforms and old-style caps handling it as best they can.

I’m sure you can remember similar efforts after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and other disasters. It is a crying shame that the goodnaturedness of ordinary people is so consistently abused, their faith in government institutions so consistently taken advantage of.

As a corollary of this, of course, the innate desire of the CCP to maintain unrivalled power, blocks, hinders and stymies almost every aspect of Chinese life. Bank loans are made inefficiently, on the basis of political say-so and contacts rather than prudent risk assessment. Information is tightly controlled, ostensibly to maintain “social order” but in reality at the convenience of the government. Infrastructure projects, the face of rising China, are riddled with unchallengeable official corruption. The courts are subject to the whims of the CCP, and political pressure, contrary to the rule of law and the interests of justice. The hukou system is grotesque. The one-child policy is an abomination.

In all of these, maintenance of CCP control and power actively hinders the best interests of the Chinese nation and people. And as official lies come more clearly into focus via increased access to information, this becomes ever clearer.

Amen.

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“Officials: Faulty signal led to deadly China train crash”

More fallout from the Wenzhou crash, via CNN:

The news comes as the Chinese government tightened its grip on coverage of the crash by major state-run news outlets amid a torrent of public anger and skepticism on social media over its handling of the incident.

Although it still dominated headlines across China’s cyberspace Tuesday night, the accident in eastern Zhejiang province had been relegated to story No. 5 in the main newscast of national broadcaster China Central Television, and what was left of its coverage focused on the heroism of rescuers.

While CCTV shunned him, Yang became an overnight hero in the eyes of Chinese netizens who were riled by the government response to the accident, especially the perceived ineptitude and arrogance of the railway ministry. Less than 24 hours after he posted his first message on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, Yang has gained more than 110,000 followers.

“The closer you get to the centrally controlled media, the more they toe the Communist Party line,” explained Jeremy Goldkorn, a long-time Chinese media observer whose Danwei website monitors the industry. “For this accident, Weibo posts have been so far ahead of official responses.”

Chinese netizens have been fuming over the government decision to crush and bury one of the six derailed train cars when the investigation had barely started, alleging an attempted cover-up or worse. In an apparent nod to the growing online opposition, crews excavated the buried car Tuesday night and transported it to a depot for re-examination.

For Weibo users, however, any sense of vindication may prove short-lived. Analysts say Internet censors have already begun deleting more posts as netizens became critical of not just the scandal-plagued railway ministry but also of the flaws of the political system.

“They are trying to shove the genie back in the bottle,” media observer Goldkorn said. “Weibo is such an effective amplifier of people’s dissatisfaction that it is worrying the government a lot.”

It seems less and less likely that the government will ignore Weibo now.

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“Grandpa Wen left helpless as internet drives wave of unrest through China”

From The Telegraph, a report about Wen Jiabao and his failure to soothe the anger this time:

Five days after two Chinese bullet trains collided in the south of the country, killing at least 39 and injuring more than 200, Mr Wen duly arrived at the scene.

Standing on a patch of gravel on Thursday that had been cleared of the wreckage, the Chinese premier promised to “get to the bottom” of what had gone wrong and apologised for not arriving sooner, blaming an 11-day illness and doctor’s orders to rest.

In the past, that might have been the end of it. But on Thursday, Mr Wen succeeded only in ratcheting up public anger a notch.

Within hours, photographs of him in seemingly perfect health at various functions over the past week had been posted on the internet and Mr Wen was accused of being a liar. His tears at the sites of various disasters over the years had already earned him the mocking title of China’s “Best Actor”.

What has changed over the past year is partly the growing inability of China’s leaders to control free speech, both in the traditional media and over the internet.

Journalists have openly defied instructions from censors not to report on the train crash and even CCTV, the state broadcaster, has turned on the government.

“Can we live in apartments that do not fall down? Can the roads we drive on in our cities not collapse? Can we travel in safe trains? And if there is a major accident, can we not be in a hurry to bury the trains? Can we afford the people a basic sense of security? China, please slow down. If you are too fast, you may leave the souls of your people behind,” said Qiu Qiming, a CCTV news anchor, live on air.

For China’s workers, the anger stems from rapidly rising prices, an absurd wealth gap, and a constant helplessness against injustice. In the past week, villagers near Foshan in Guangdong province attacked and overturned a police car before roping the policemen to the car and attempting to set it on fire.

In Anshun, Guizhou province, hundreds of rioters fought with police for hours after a disabled fruit seller was beaten to death by Chinese officials on the street in broad daylight. A similar incident, in which a pregnant worker was beaten up by city officials in Zengcheng, provoked a riot last month.

As it loses the battle to control the population through the media, and through internet and video surveillance, the government has resorted in recent months to displays of raw power, sending squadrons of paramilitary police on to the streets of several cities to prevent riots.

China now spends almost £60 billion a year on “internal security”, more than on the People’s Liberation Army. But it has not been able to stop the number of riots from tripling in the past five years to 180,000 in 2011 – or 493 a day – according to a professor at Tsinghua University.

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“Weibo Watershed? Train Collision Anger Explodes Online”

The trust between the government and citizens might not be completely gone yet, but as we’re seeing from the Wenzhou crash aftermath, it might not be a good idea to depend on it lasting forever:

A torrent of outrage over a deadly high-speed train accident grew further on the Chinese Internet Tuesday, reflecting the mounting challenge China’s leaders face in managing opinion of their governance among an increasingly wired and demanding public.

Anger and skepticism that emerged quickly after Saturday’s collision of two bullet trains in eastern China—which killed at least 39 people dead and injured more than 192—has intensified as the government has drawn fire for not being forthcoming enough with information on the disaster. Much of the criticism played out on Sina Weibo, China’s most active Twitter-like microblogging site, where the accident on Tuesday remained the most discussed item for a third-straight day.

Authorities have fired three railways officials, and vowed repeatedly to conduct a thorough investigation and punish anyone responsible. But for some Chinese Internet users, the accident and its handling have cemented a broader sense of angst about poor governance after a series of corruption and public safety scandals in recent years.

Weibo, which was founded nearly two years ago and said in May it had surpassed 140 million users, has been a conduit for public indignation with previous scandals. But some longtime observers say the criticism unleashed by the train crash is unprecedented in its scope and fervor, because the incident has hit home in a nation where rail is by far the most common means of long-distance transport and where the ruling Communist Party has relentlessly trumpeted the high-speed rail system.

More broadly, said Mr. Bandurski, “Weibo is a looming challenge for the party.” Some officials may want to rein it in, but they need to balance the potential benefits against need to balance their concerns against the huge potential negative could come from trying to dismantle it. “The question they face is ‘How can we let people have their Weibo and still manage public opinion?’”

With the train incident, the public cynicism on Weibo has fed conspiracy theories about the government’s response. The vast majority of Weibo users participating in one user-generated poll, for example, said they thought the manipulation of some of the wrecked train cars by heavy machinery, shown in video footage that spread widely online, was an attempt by the government to bury evidence. Users have ridiculed the explanation provided by Railways Ministry spokesman Wang Yongping in a press conference Sunday that moving the wreckage was necessary to enable rescue equipment to reach the site more easily.

I’ve seen a lot of people saying that this might be the end for Weibo. The government can’t shut it down right now, but rest assured: someone is quietly trying to figure out the best way to close it right now. Like the anti-bribery sites, uncensored discussion on Weibo is too dangerous for the government to tolerate for long.

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Latest on Wenzhou Crash

From The Guardian, growing anger towards the authorities over their lack of transparency, and suspicion over the causes of the crash:

Chinese authorities face growing public fury over the high-speed train crash that killed at least 38 people and injured 192, with the disposal of wreckage and attempts to control coverage of the incident prompting allegations of a cover-up.

The railways ministry has apologised for the collision in eastern Zhejiang province and announced an inquiry. Spokesman Wang Yongping added: “China’s high-speed rail technology is up to date and up to standard, and we still have faith in it.”

Internet users attacked the government’s response to the disaster after authorities muzzled media coverage and urged reporters to focus on rescue efforts. “We have the right to know the truth!” wrote one microblogger called kangfu xiaodingdang. “That’s our basic right!”

Leaked propaganda directives ordered journalists not to investigate the causes and footage emerged of bulldozers shovelling dirt over carriages.

Beijing sees high-speed rail as a matter of national prestige, highlighting China’s development, but critics appear to see the disaster as symptomatic of the country’s problems. Internet users repeatedly described the crash as a man-made, not a natural disaster, and blamed officials.

“When a country is so corrupt that one lightning strike can cause a train crash … none of us is exempt. China today is a train rushing through a lightning storm … we are all passengers,” ran one of the most frequently forwarded comments on the Twitter-like Sina Weibo service.

Meanwhile, Shanghaiist does some comparisons:

One day after the catastrophic high-speed railway collision, party propaganda papers like the Renmin Daily, Economic Daily and Guangming Daily appeared almost oblivious to the incident, as evident by their almost identical front page covers trumpeting the recent promotion ceremony conducted by the Central Military Commission and other exploits of the CCP. Most other city dailies, however, featured the incident as their front page cover story.

Definitely click that link- propaganda in action. Finally, via South China Morning Post, relatives of the dead have been protesting in Wenzhou:

Grief gave way to anger in Wenzhou yesterday as relatives of the victims of Saturday’s high-speed train crash protested outside the municipal government offices, demanding railway officials meet them face to face.

About 100 family members and friends of the dead – thought to number at least 39 – blocked the road in front of Wenzhou government headquarters at around 9pm last night after a two-hour stand-off with officials descended into farce.

“They are just playing games with us,” cried one relative before the situation escalated. “They are the ones who should be apologising to us, and instead we have to beg just to speak to them. The government has such a wonderful tower, but the people are left sweating in the street. Why don’t they let us inside to wait?”

The protesters were calling for an explanation of what caused the accident – which has stunned the nation and raised concerns about the safety of the high-speed rail network – and answers to what they felt were serious discrepancies in the official account of events. They also accused officials of caring more about fixing the rail link than saving lives.

“We are not being told the truth,” Yang said.

“Why is it that more than 48 hours after the accident not a single person from the Ministry of Railways will meet us face to face?”

Yang said his seven-months-pregnant wife died in the crash, along with her mother, elder sister and nephew. He claimed their bodies had been discovered only in the middle of Sunday night after he and another relative begged rescue workers to check their crushed carriage again.

The railway ministry’s apparent wrong-footed handling of the disaster has sparked a public outcry, with mainland internet users turning to social media websites to express their anger and suspicion over the official accounts of the accident.

A slew of questions have been raised, ranging from the conflicting reports on the death toll, the cause of the accident, the hastily cleaned up scene, to the rush to reopen the track less than 36 hours after the country’s worst rail disaster since 2008.

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“Death on the High Speed Rail”

Custer from ChinaGeeks is going nuts and doing an incredible job bringing together different aspects of the Wenzhou crash story. Some of the most interesting parts:

Other high speed rail lines don’t seem to have these problems. France’s TGV, for example, has not suffered a single fatality since it began operation in 1981. Japan’s Shinkansen, which has been in operation since 1964, has also never had a death with the exception of one passenger who got caught in the train’s closing doors2. Of course, China is a much larger country than Japan or France, but China’s rail lines are also much newer.

This is accident is a tragedy, and yet I find that my primary response to it is anger. Accidents in general are unavoidable, and they happen everywhere. But this accident was entirely avoidable, and in fact, railway authorities were given ample warning that something like this could happen over the last several weeks. Ultimately, poor design and construction mixed with bureaucratic lethargy and stupidity has murdered thirty-five people. This is an “accident” in only the loosest sense of the word. Those people would still be alive if railway authorities had taken the design and construction of the trains more seriously, or alternately, if they had listened to the warnings coming from all areas of society over the past few weeks and stopped the operation of high speed trains until the obviously serious problems could be fixed.

More leaked propaganda directives relating to the crash, as sent to reporters and shared on Sina Weibo:

To Central Media: Regarding the Wenzhou crash, the newest requirements: 1) Use the deaths and casualty numbers reported by authorities; they are correct 2) Do not report too frequently 3) Report more moving stories, such as people donating blood or taxi drivers not taking fares from victims, etc. 4) Do not investigate the cause of the accident, use the information reported by authorities 5) Do not do “re-thinking” or commentary.

Propaganda Notice: The name of the Wenzhou accident will be the “The 7.23 Wenzhou Line Railway Accident”. From now on, use the headline “Great love in the face of great tragedy” to report on this incident. Do not doubt, reveal, or make associations, and to not retweet things on your personal Weibo accounts. In [TV] programs you can provide the relevant information, but be careful of the music.

This is how stories get spun. At the same time, Chinese netizens seem overwhelmingly unanimous in their outrage towards the government on this one. We’ll see if the eunuch press can tamp that down or not.

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“At least 35 dead and 210 injured in high-speed train crash”

Fresh off CMP’s post about problems and corruption in the high-speed network, news of a deadly crash via Shanghaiist:

At least 35 people were killed and over 200 injured in a horrific high-speed rail collision in Wenzhou, Zhejiang at about 8:30pm last night. The accident happened when one train, D3115, lost power after being struck by lightening, and then was rear-ended by another train, D301. A total of six carriages were derailed, two falling from the viaduct.

D3115 was traveling from Hangzhou to Fuzhou, and D301 from Beijing to Fuzhou. There were more than 1,400 passengers on the two trains.

Some reports are now putting the dead at over 40, and the number will likely continue to rise.

According to Zhejiang radio, the driver of D301 was stabbed to death by the brake handle after using the last moment of his life to pull the emergency brake.

After a call was put out from a local Wenzhou hospital for help, hundreds shows up last night to donate blood.

The Railway Ministry has already ordered an “urgent overhaul of railway and train safety nationwide,” and 21 trains have been suspended.

This tragedy is particularly scary in that the collision was caused by an unplanned power outage on the train, something that has been plaguing the recently opened Shanghai-Beijing line. We can only hope the safety overhauls are both immediate and effective.

Sometimes you see people talking about how authoritarian governments have some kind of advantage over democratic governments in terms of their ability to get things done. News like this should make us re-evaluate that idea. Sure, the rail network is getting built, as per command- but without appropriate safety rules and oversight of the project, exactly what kind of network will they end up with? How safe will it be, how useful will it be, and how long will it last?

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