< "Whether you believe it or not, I believe it."

Transcript

Friday, July 29, 2011

BOB GARFIELD:

When at least 40 passengers were killed in a collision of China's highly touted bullet trains last Saturday, the government and the Communist Party sprang into action and issued orders to state media to limit their coverage.

But the Internet was all over the crash within minutes. One micro blogger even produced video of heavy equipment, not dislodging the wreckage, but covering it over with dirt. Soon the entire country was condemning shoddy safety precautions, rushed railway production to meet the deadline of the Party's 90th anniversary, and possibly corruption, as well.

Jeremy Goldkorn runs Danwei, a firm that collects and analyzes Chinese media online and off. He says that when a Chinese official tried to explain why that heavy equipment was at the crash site, he met with some —skepticism.

JEREMY GOLDKORN:

He was explaining that the reason he'd been given for moving the railway carriages was that that the ground was very marshy and they needed to make a kind of stable platform in order to install search and rescue equipment. And he said very defensively, whether you believe it or not, I believe it, which was immediately mocked on the Chinese Internet because, you know, it sounded very much like he didn't particularly care if it was true or not himself.

BOB GARFIELD:

Now, we're speaking on Thursday. At this stage the story is all over official media. Shenhua News Agency has spoken about it openly. It is now on state television. But at the beginning, the Chinese government did what the Chinese government historically has done, which is try to obscure the details of the crash.

Tell me some of the instructions that the Party issued the media.

JEREMY GOLDKORN:

They were saying don't do investigations, don't look too closely into the causes, basically use the authorized copy from Shenhua and then focus on using headlines like, "Great Hope in the Face of Tragedy" and this kind of thing.

BOB GARFIELD:

Reporters were told to look at the bright side of the story, like people donating blood and taxi drivers not accepting fares, you know, the good news,

JEREMY GOLDKORN:

That's correct, heartwarming stories.

BOB GARFIELD:

But that failed. This was quickly all over the Internet, beginning with sort of the Chinese version of Twitter, called Weibo.

JEREMY GOLDKORN:

It unfolded almost in real time for Saturday in Beijing, and by Sunday morning it was already a huge story on the Chinese Internet, and particularly on Sina's Weibo service, which is the Twitter of China.

Over the weekend the official response was very slow. There wasn't much reporting in the official media, very short and terse reporting. But photos and videos continued to be uploaded to the Internet in massive, massive numbers. This is Thursday now, we're talking. It was the most popular topic on Weibo.

BOB GARFIELD:

Over the past 90 years, the Communist Party's gotten quite practiced at suppressing news. But over the last decade there's been a lot of backlash, first trying to cover up the SARS epidemic and then in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in which a lot of the construction was revealed to be shoddy, and now this.

And yet, relatively quickly the government was obliged to begin being transparent about the story. They are now talking about it openly in all of the, the national press.

JEREMY GOLDKORN:

Openly and very critically, I would add. Even on CCTV, the state-owned nationwide broadcaster, these programs have been very critical of the handling of this accident and of the Ministry of Railways.

BOB GARFIELD:

So is this a turning point? Have they finally realized that you can't keep the cat in the bag?

JEREMY GOLDKORN:

I mean, if there was a turning point I would say it was probably the Schezhuan earthquake, which also broke first on the Internet and forced the state media to play catch up. So, you know, this has happened before, and it's been happening for a few years already now.

This one is particularly big, I think, for a few reasons. One, chattering classes and the people who use the Internet most heavily are also the kind of people who will get on high speed trains. So there's been a lot of feeling that, you know, this could happen to you or me. It's not some poor peasant stuck in a mountain, you know, halfway up the Himalayas.

Also, there's been a bit of a stink about the ministry of railways for some months already. Earlier in the year, Liu Zhijun, the minister of railways, was sacked on accusations of corruption, and all kinds of salacious and scandalous stories emerged about him having 18 mistresses, about massive bribery and corruption, which may have led to the use of inferior building materials on some of the high speed lines.

So, I mean, I think that's also another factor that contributed towards the relative openness with which the story's been handled.

BOB GARFIELD:

I was struck by a statement by the Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who called for the investigation of the accident to be, quote, "swift, open and transparent." What are we to make of [LAUGHS] a Chinese official insisting on transparency?

JEREMY GOLDKORN:

Call me a cynic, if you will. What I make of it is he's saying the best-sounding words he can.

I should point out that today there's been another little mini scandal breaking about Wen Jiabao, because he's always the guy that when there's been a disaster, for example, the Schezuan earthquake, he's the one who goes there and then holds the hands of the bereaved and acts the man of the people.

And in this case he said, when he gave a press conference, that he was very sorry he couldn't get there earlier, but he'd been in bed sick for 11 days, which is patently false because there are Shenhua official news agency photos and articles about him meeting with a Japanese trade delegation on Sunday, and just a few days before that meeting with the president of Cameroon.

So even though there's a lot of openness right now and a certain amount of transparency, it's quite likely that when the story moves off the headlines and when it's no longer the number one topic on Weibo, and it's the source of a lot less anger on the part of Internet users, I don't have any confidence that the investigation will, in fact, be full and complete and transparent.

BOB GARFIELD:

Jeremy, thank you so much.

JEREMY GOLDKORN:

My pleasure.

BOB GARFIELD:

Jeremy Goldkorn is founder of Danwei, a firm that researches Chinese Internet and media and publishes at Danwei, D-A-N-W-E-I.com and .org.