By Gunjan Singh
In a very tragic incident in China, a high speed bullet train collided with a stationary train near the city of Wenzhou in Zhejiang province. Various Chinese and international media reports have provided different figures about the total number of death ranging from 35 to 39 and the number of injured have been reported to be around 200. As typical of the Chinese government, the initial attempt was to cover the magnitude of the disaster and also attempt to block the coverage of the news. It is believed that parts of the train have been buried or packed and dispatched with great urgency after the accident. The primary concern is that the government did not want any public uproar and mobilization.
In spite of the attempt by the government to cover the news, information about this accident did spread and the government had to succumb to public demand and declare an open and fair investigation. To the surprise of many, Premier Wen Jiabao has even called for the results of the investigation to be made public. Undoubtedly, it’s a decision which is uncommon in the Chinese scenario.
The basic factor behind this has been the role of the new communication technologies and the increasing and dynamic role of the media in China which is constantly changing relations between the state and the society. The role played by internet and cell phones was the primary factor that worked against the government attempts to block the news. People were aware of the developments within minutes of the accident. People have also shown their anger over the government’s attempts to cover up by hiding the wreckage and evidence. Microbloggers, in particular, have been questioning the government’s numbers regarding causalities from this accident. Thus, once again new communication technologies have shown their utility in voicing people’s discontent.
Following this, the government has responded by declaring that there should be an open investigation. This highlights that the Chinese government has once again succumbed to pressure from the new media. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had managed to control the media completely till about 1978. With the introduction of new technologies and the development of a commercial media, the level of control which the CCP enjoyed has been continuously weakening. New developments in the media sphere have made the power centre within Chinese society more dynamic. Social as well as mass media are playing the role of catalysst in this changing power structure within Chinese society.
Interestingly, even the official media voiced the point of view of the people, albeit after the protests and Premier Wen’s statement. The state-run Global Times, which generally maintains a pro-government and nationalist stance, stated that the government cannot deal with the people in a bureaucratic fashion time and again. It went on to praise the internet and the comments on it as a mark of ‘public democracy’. Though the government has removed a number of top railway officials and declared a compensation of approximately $77,500 to each victim of this accident, public sentiments are not pacified. People have been demanding that the government should make the cause of the accident public rather than provide them with monetary compensation. This new ‘space’ which the media and the internet have created is proving to be a check on the party and its cronies by voicing demands for the people’s right to information, at least when it matters in their immediate lives.
The recurrence of these developments shows that the CCP is worried that sustained grievance against the party can be harmful for its long-term stability and creates questions about its hold on power. The primary motive of controlling the media by the Propaganda Department has been the need to maintain stability within the Chinese society so that no organized protests become strong enough to question the CCP’s authority. In general, authoritarian states have not been comfortable with people’s access to information, especially when the government appears to be on the wrong side of the story. The CCP is facing exactly this fear and as of now is not sure as to how to manage these instances since the media is becoming an important pillar in the drive for accountability in China. This is a fundamental change unfolding within contemporary Chinese society.
Learning from the recent Jasmine Revolution, the CCP has become more alert to online public outcries and is subsequently constantly on guard to avoid any embarrassment that may turn into mass discontent and protests. If the government had not reacted swiftly and in accordance with people’s demand after the train accident, it may have backfired and may have led to more public protests.
Research Assistant, IDSA
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