The Wenzhou debacle gets even weirder

The Wenzhou debacle gets even weirder

The furor over the Saturday night train crash last weekend in eastern China that killed at least 39 people and injured at least 192 has left the Chinese government scrambling to control public reaction. But its efforts may be doing the ruling Communist party more harm than good. Here’s a roundup of some of the most interesting bits coming out about the crash:

Official reports from earlier this week said the crash was caused by a lightning strike. Today, however, the state-affiliated Xinhua News Agency is reporting testimony from the head of the Shanghai Railway Bureau at a meeting of the central government’s State Council saying that the blame lies with design flaws in the railway’s signaling system. The revelation confirms questions aired publicly by a number of Chinese railway experts wondering why safety mechanisms didn’t kick in after the lightning strike to avert disaster (Caixin, Wall Street Journal).

Meanwhile, five days after the crash, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao finally made a public appearance today in Wenzhou to address the disaster. He blamed his earlier absence on an illness, which knocked him out of action for the last eleven days. His explanation didn’t sit well with a number of users of the popular Chinese microblogging site, Weibo, who circulated official press photos showing Wen up and about with visiting state leaders between July 18 and July 24. But the confusion may boil down to a simple reporting error; the original Xinhua report appears to have misquoted Wen in saying that he had been in the hospital, while the premier said only that he was sick and in bed.

Whatever the reason for Wen’s absence, his appearance means that the central government is taking seriously the crash — and not a moment too soon. The Ministry of Railways (MOR) has come under fire from citizens, journalists, and even fellow government officials for its handling of the crisis. At a press conference on Monday, MOR spokesman Wang Yongping elicited howls from journalists with his efforts to explain why initial state reports about the cleanup were proven false (see item #13). Meanwhile, stories from the Wenzhou City News and the Beijing News describe how Wenzhou officials clashed with MOR officials over cleanup at the crash site. One local security official told the City News how he disobeyed orders on Sunday afternoon to bury the trains (translation by China-watching blog Shanghaiist):

That afternoon I received orders to bring the train carriages on the track down to the foot of the bridge for clearing. I refused and said we would continue to work on the carriages on the railway track or wherever they are. What would we do if there was still life in any of the trains? What would we say to their families? I held fast to my ground, but I also faced a lot of pressure. In the end, we received clearance from the command central to continue working on the carriages in their original locations.

Hours after his act of disobedience, rescuers discovered two-year-old toddler Xiang Weiyi alive in the wreckage. Despite that discovery, photo evidence suggests that authorities have since gone ahead with plans to take the train apart and bury it. Guangdong-based Southern Weekend reported on its Weibo account that officials took a similar course with a crash that killed 19 last year and didn’t even bother to remove all the human remains.

In addition to their content, the Beijing News and Wenzhou City News stories also point to the government’s struggles to control the media narrative. Propaganda directives from directly after the crash called for reporting on the accident "to use ‘in the face of great tragedy, there’s great love’ as a theme," according to a leaked copy posted on China Digital Times. The Xiang Weiyi story fit perfectly into this narrative. But plenty of journalists have taken a sharper tone. The most striking deviation from central directives has come on China Central Television, where three news anchors separately called out central authorities on their role in the crisis. News anchor Qiu Qiming had the sharpest words (translation, again, by Shanghaiist):

If nobody can be safe, do we still want this speed? Can we drink a glass of milk that’s safe? Can we stay in an apartment that will not fall? Can the roads we travel on in our cities not collapse? Can we travel in safe trains? And if and when a major accident does happen, 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’re too fast, you may leave the souls of your people behind.

And there could be more to come. A rumor that the real number of fatalities is 216, not 39, is spreading like wildfire on Weibo. It’s important to note that the rumor is very much unsubstantiated; most users cite the number as coming from an anonymous source at an insurance company. Nonetheless, the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project tweets:

If real # of fatalities proves to be as dramatically different as web users are claiming, the impact on government credibility could be massive.

Whether or not the rumor proves true, the speed at which it is circulating underscores just how sensitive a topic this has become for the Chinese government. Look out for further developments in this story in the coming days.