Defying Ban, Chinese Media Covers Rail Crash

Melissa Block talks with David Bandurski, researcher with Hong Kong University's China Media Project, about Chinese media coverage of the July 23 high-speed rail crash in Wenzhou. Bandurski says both state-run and commercial media covered the crash aggressively for a week, defying a government ban on coverage. A subsequent directive from propaganda authorities largely put an end to that this past weekend.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host: From NPR News, this ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block.

Chinese authorities are trying to quash public outrage over a high-speed train crash last month that killed 40 people. The government has issued numerous directives to the media not to investigate the causes of the crash and instead, to publish or broadcast stories of uplift and national unity. One order reads: Do not question, do not elaborate.

NORRIS: David Bandurski has been monitoring coverage of the train accident in the Chinese media. He's a researcher at the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project.

BLOCK: And, David, are these directives working? Has the media obeyed the order to not do hard-hitting coverage of this story?

DAVID BANDURSKI: Well, the first ban the ones that you just read there, media were quite successful in breaking through. Those were bans that were issued July 23rd, the day that the crash happened, so media were told to keep it positive - to focus on stories of great love in the face of great tragedy. And we sort of saw that happening the following day. But within 48 hours, we had media asking much tougher questions.

And by the time Monday rolled around to Tuesday, we were seeing very hard hitting coverage from media in China. Then we had another round of bans at the end of the week, basically one week through this tragedy. On July 29th, the Central Propaganda Department had had enough and they said - stop it.

BLOCK: So those tougher questions that were being asked originally had to do with not just what caused the crash itself, but also what happened after. Was the investigation into this basically physically buried, as they buried the wreckage of this train?

BANDURSKI: It certainly looked that way because we had a very short rescue effort. Many Chinese were watching this happen in real time. Through the micro-blogs, people were posting video and photos and eyewitness accounts from Guangzhou. And it seemed that the rescue effort was really stopped too quickly. And the priority was to get the trains running again and that angered a lot of Chinese people. So there weren't really - the answers weren't forthcoming.

Why did this happen? The initial statement from the Railway Ministry was that it was a lightning strike. And then another response they had was to fire three local level railway ministers. So people were - in Chinese media again are saying, well, if it was a lightning strike why are you firing party leaders? Why is that the response?

BLOCK: And when you say that the push was to get trains running again, there's an image that really crystallizes that, an image of another high-speed rail train passing over a viaduct under which is the wreckage of this destroyed train.

BANDURSKI: That's right. And that image did become quite emblematic, I think, of the problems here. So we saw that image in a really important story from the official government news agency, Chinois News Agency on Monday. And that was a story that actually was quite instrumental in encouraging a lot of Chinese media to push harder in their coverage.

BLOCK: Well, what about now? Have you seen a real retrenchment in the media in terms of how this train crash is being covered?

BANDURSKI: Well, we have seen a little bit of coverage since the second round of propaganda orders came last Friday. But we really haven't seen the kind of coverage that we saw last week. So we saw them ramping up on that Friday, the 29th. But that night, because of these propaganda directives, newspapers had to back paddle really fast. And a lot of them had to drop their coverage.

BLOCK: What does it say to you that the crackdown on the media about this story, about this high-speed rail crash, what does that say about the sensitivity of this issue, and the primacy of high-speed rail for Chinese authorities?

BANDURSKI: Well, it does say quite a bit. The development of high-speed rail has been a major prestige project for a number of years. The Chinese government has poured millions and billions of dollars into this. And interestingly, as we saw the coverage this week, one of the concerns people had was that it was too fast, that the growth was - that it happened too fast and there wasn't enough oversight and concern about safety.

BLOCK: David Bandurski is a researcher at the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project. David, thanks very much.

BANDURSKI: Thanks.

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