When tragedy strikes and the government wants you to ignore it, what do you do? If you’re in China following a devastating train crash, you turn to social media.
In Beijing disaster struck, and there was nothing natural about it. On Saturday July 23rd 2011, a bullet train crashed, killing 39 people and injuring 200 more. It is China’s worst rail accident since 2008. According to authorities, a design flaw and human mistakes resulted in the crash. Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao notes: “No matter if it was a mechanical fault, a management problem, or a manufacturing problem, we must get to the bottom of this.” He continued: “If corruption was found behind this, we must handle it according to law and will not be soft. Only in this way can we be fair to those who have died.”
The explanation and promise of action has left the public unimpressed – to say the least.
There are several areas of critique. One of the most major concerns is government cover up. From death tolls and unreliable information to accusations that the government is providing rewards to victim’s families who are willing to “keep quiet”, the public is expressing anger and doubt towards their government.
While the official media – controlled by the government – has been directed to release positive stories about the incident (trying being the reporter who has to spin that), public concern has found an outlet in social media. Citizens are posting on the popular Twitter-like microblogging site Sina Weibo. Among the most popular posts was the statement:
“Today’s China is a bullet train racing through a thunderstorm — and we are all passengers on board.”
If that wasn’t enough, a policeman who saved a two year old girl and is being hailed a hero joined Weibo and gained 110, 000 followers overnight. Public reaction on Weibo isn’t going unnoticed by the Chinese government. One of the major points of anger over the crash concerned the government’s decision to bury one of the six derailed cars. So early in the investigation, many expressed suspicions that this was an attempted cover up. On Tuesday evening, crews dug up the buried car for further examination. This seems to suggest the government is not unaware of the social media outcry.
The minor victory may be short lived. Internet censors have reportedly already begun deleting posts and rumours circulate there may be further consequences for social media using journalists down the road.
However, the social media reaction is still significant. According to David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project, “This is one of the biggest ever venting of anger and doubt, through social media, in China.” For a country with strict censorship laws, social media has provided not only an outlet; it has provided a megaphone to give people a voice loud enough to be heard by the government. According to USA Today, an editorial in a state-run newspaper even went so far as to note: “The relationship between the government and the public is like that of a ship and water. Water can keep the ship afloat or sink it.”
For China, these are fighting words, and social media has provided a tool forthe Chinese people to force their government to take note of the fight.