China Forbids Reporting on Suspicious Train Wreck

The government imposes a blackout on investigations into the deadly crash

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Last weekend, two high-speed trains crashed in China after one was struck by lightning, killing 40 people and causing immeasurable damage. But after the shock from the catastrophe wore off, many in China began questioning the details of the crash. For example, why were the wrecked parts of the train buried so quickly? Why couldn't the second train stop? And why have there been a string of infrastructure disasters in the country?

These questions, it turns out, were too many for the Chinese government. The New York Times is reporting that, in a sudden order sent from the Communist party late Friday, "Chinese authorities have enacted a virtual news blackout on the disaster except for positive stories or information officially released by the government."

“There were three calls,” one editor in Beijing said. “The first came around 9 p.m., ordering us to ‘cool down’ coverage of the Wenzhou accident as much as possible.” An hour later, the newspaper was instructed “to print only Xinhua’s wire and not to print anything we had gotten ourselves. No comments, no analysis,” the editor said. A third call at midnight ordered the accident coverage off the front page.

The Beijing-based Economic Observer ignored the directive, though said it was because they had already printed. The producer of one news program was reportedly reprimanded after program. But other newspaper editors followed the directions, and editors had to tear up Saturday editions in some cases and replace them with "cartoons or unrelated features."

The China Media Project reports on a few pieces that did not see the light of day, including an interview by The Beijing News with Wang Mengnu, a railway engineer and member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences who was on the team tasked with looking into the causes of the railway tragedy. "Wang was plainly clueless about the nuts and bolts of the supposed investigation, raising further questions about credibility."

But government propaganda measures aside, concerns over the train crash remains alive. In Hong Kong on Sunday, the AFP reports that activists held a protest calling for a thorough and open investigation of the crash. Leung Kwok Hung, a lawmaker from the League of Social Democrats, led two dozen party members in a march to the China liaison office. And outlets like the China Media Project continue to post censored articles and scrutinize the government's coverage. As the Times observes, "For many in China, the train wreck has crystalized concerns about whether the government is sacrificing people’s lives and safety in pursuit of breakneck development and cloaking its failures in secrecy or propaganda."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.