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China’s Micro-Blog Revolution

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New Leaders Forum

China’s Micro-Blog Revolution

The Chinese government’s response to the train crash in Wenzhou left a gaping hole for new media to fill.

Three weeks after the fatal high-speed train crash in Wenzhou, China, a fierce and wide-ranging debate is taking place on the country’s micro-blogs over issues including train safety, corruption, governance and compensation plans.

The new importance of micro-blogs was underscored most clearly by the fact that the first SOS message from the scene of the crash was posted on a micro-blog at 8:47pm, just minutes after the accident occurred. A resident living near the scene micro-blogged expressing her concern about the safety of the passengers after seeing the train stop unexpectedly. Two hours after the accident, calls for blood donors made on a micro-blog resulted in more than 1,000 people promptly donating blood. Celebrities and opinion leaders also used the platform to offer support and to respond to the needs of the injured. For example, information on those missing spread quickly on blogs, as well as news of free transport for the families of the injured. Even before the Railway Ministry had held its first press conference, micro-bloggers had published and circulated numerous photos of the scene.

Once the dust had settled, micro-bloggers began raising questions about what had really happened, and how. One popular post, quoted by the New York Times, included an eloquent appeal for more caution in China’s rapid development:

‘China, please stop your flying pace, wait for your people, wait for your soul, wait for your morality, wait for your conscience! Don’t let the train run off track, don’t let the bridges collapse, don’t let the roads become traps, don’t let houses becomes ruins. Walk slowly, allowing every life to have freedom and dignity. No one should be left behind by our era.’

Another blogger wrote that: ‘This is a country where a thunderstorm can cause a train to crash, a car can make a bridge collapse and drinking milk can lead to kidney stones. Today’s China is a bullet train racing through a thunderstorm – and we are all passengers onboard.’

The disaster and its aftermath have highlighted the reality in China today that micro-blogs are the most active media outlet in pushing for the truth, raising questions, bringing people together and mobilizing them. Against a backdrop of censorship and information ‘guidance’ in TV and print, micro-blog users have been delving deeper than their old media cousins in search of the truth. After recording and exposing the aftermath of the train crash, micro-blog users soon began expressing their anger over the investigation into the events of July 23, and there was plenty of scathing criticism over the alleged inefficiency of the Railway Ministry.  

But micro-blogs haven’t just empowered ordinary citizens – even journalists from traditional media, faced with reporting constraints from the government, have turned to the platform to speak out. Some journalists have even conducted independent investigations and in-depth interviews, using the blogs to quickly spread word over what they discovered. In doing so, a new alliance has been established between citizens and the journalists. And, as more information has been shared, China’s citizens are gradually having their eyes opened on some key issues.

On the government side, although the country’s leaders still have a firm grip on power, the cost of negative information is becoming greater as it is magnified and spreads more rapidly. The proliferation of new media and new tools such as smartphones means every citizen has a chance to be a journalist. This shift will only grow more pronounced as younger generations, who prefer to get their news from social networking sites rather than official outlets, mature. As a result, the tighter the government turns the screws on traditional media, the more it drives a wedge between itself and its citizens.

Last month’s train disaster may simply hasten this whole process. The lack of information from official news outlets forced people to turn to other sources, and inevitably even rumours. The problem is that this unofficial news is itself not always accurate, sometimes provoking panic and anger. Clearly, the Chinese government didn’t learn its lessons from the SARS outbreak in 2003, when there were official attempts to downplay the seriousness of the outbreak.  

The Wenzhou train crash should serve as a wake-up call for the government, and encourage it to rethink the way it handles information distribution. Failure to do so will simply mean that it is increasingly challenged by a more empowered populace.

Yang Yi is a resident fellow at CSIS Pacific Forum.