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Firemen help evacuate a victim outside the Yuyuan Garden station after a subway crash in Shanghai. (Carlos Barria/Reuters/Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Firemen help evacuate a victim outside the Yuyuan Garden station after a subway crash in Shanghai. (Carlos Barria/Reuters/Carlos Barria/Reuters)

WorldView

China's bubbling post-crash anger is getting harder to ignore Add to ...

The public anger stirred mere minutes after it became evident that something had gone badly wrong on Line 10 of the Shanghai metro.

“Does anyone take ordinary people’s lives as important?” wrote an anonymous commentator as the first video from the subway crash that left some 271 people hurt was streaming live online.

The collision of the two subway cars was swiftly blamed on a signaling error, and authorities promised to investigate.

What made many Chinese “netizens” (as Internet users here are known) angry was that they’d heard this story before. It was just two months ago that 40 people were killed when a signalling error caused two high-speed trains to collide near the city of Wenzhou, in eastern Zhejiang province. An investigation into what went wrong was due earlier this month but has been delayed without explanation.

Five days after the Wenzhou disaster, an accident was narrowly avoided on the very same Line 10 of the Shanghai metro when yet another signalling error sent a train hurtling the wrong way down the tracks.

Two major train accidents – and another near miss – in eight weeks, causing millions of people to worry if it’s safe to ride the rails? In a country where the government trumpets high-speed rail as proof of the country’s development and, less overtly, of the Communist Party’s right to govern?

Netizens certainly thought there was something to discuss, rushing to post some two million comments in the first five hours on the Sino Weibo microblogging website alone. “The (near miss in July) shows that Shanghai Metro has already had a problem that needed to be managed. Why wasn’t it resolved? Do people have to be injured or killed, before (authorities) admit a mistake and correct it?” a blogger using the name Siyizhi Tianshi wrote on Sina Weibo.

Take genuine public outrage, added to real questions about whether something systemic is wrong with China’s rail network – plus images that were available online of both bleeding crash survivors and rescue workers trying to reach them – and it’s the stuff front pages are made of. The string of crashes and malfunctions highlights one of the most pressing questions facing China: is the country sacrificing too much – public safety, social stability, the environment – in the name of economic development?

But here’s what did appear on the front pages of some of China’s main newspapers today (handily assembled by another Sina Weibo user):

A compilation of newspaper front pages from Shanghai following the September 27th subway crash.

Left-to-right they’re Liberation Army Daily, Economic Daily, the People’s Daily domestic edition, the People’s Daily overseas edition, the China Youth Daily and the Guangming Daily. Only one of the six – China Youth Daily – gives front-page coverage to the crash that everyone in the country is talking about today.

Instead, the headline news was the same as it was nearly every day. The doings of the Communist Party’s top leaders (President Hu Jintao met with the prime minister of North Korea; top Politburo member Wu Bangguo hosted the President of Kazakhstan), and the new utterings from the top that Party members are urged to study.

As with the Beijing’s air quality, the government is obviously worried that shining too much light on the country’s shortcomings might cause too many people to ask too many questions that they’d rather not answer.

After the Wenzhou crash, there was worried chatter in the capital about the fact the same faulty signalling equipment is apparently in use on Beijing’s own subway lines. The response from the top? “No report, no comments on this matter. City Internet management office, please carry out your work with excellence on public opinion management and control online,” according to a leaked memo issued by the Propaganda Department, cynically referred to as the “Ministry of Truth.”

One imagines a similar directive was sent out to Party newspapers following Tuesday’s crash on the Shanghai metro. No report, no comments. Manage public opinion.

But as the outpouring on Sina Weibo shows, in 2011, it’s getting harder and harder to “manage” genuine and justified public anger. Even for China’s Ministry of Truth.

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Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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