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Chinese state censorship no match for microblogs in wake of train tragedy

"After all the wind and storm, what's going on with the high-speed train?" read the prophetic message posted Saturday evening on the Chinese microblog Sina Weibo. "It's crawling slower than a snail. I hope nothing happens to it."

They were a few short sentences, typed by a young girl with the online handle Smm Miao. But five days later, the torrent that followed them was still flooding the Internet, and lapping at the feet of government bureaucrats, censors and the state-controlled media.

The train the girl saw, on a track outside Wenzhou in coastal Zhejiang province, was rammed from behind minutes later, killing 39 people and injuring 192. Since then, China's two major Twitter-like microblogs – called weibos here – have posted 26 million messages on the tragedy, including some that have forced embarrassed officials to reverse themselves. The messages are a potent amalgam of contempt for railway authorities, suspicion of government explanations and shoe-leather journalism by citizens and professionals alike.

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The swift and comprehensive messages about the train accident stood this week in stark contrast to the stonewalling of the Railways Ministry, already stained by a bribery scandal. And they are a humbling example for the Communist Party news outlets and state television, whose blinkered coverage of rescued babies only belatedly gave way to careful reports on the public's discontent.

While the blogs have outed wrongdoers and broken news before, this week's performance may signal the arrival of weibos as a social force to be reckoned with, even in the face of government efforts to rein in the Internet's influence.

The government censors assigned to monitor public opinion have let most, though hardly all, of the weibo posts stream onto the Web unimpeded. But many experts say they are riding a tiger. For the very nature of weibo posts, which spread faster than censors can react, makes weibos beyond easy control. And their mushrooming popularity makes controlling them a delicate matter.

Saturday's train disaster is a telling example – an event that resonated with China's growing middle class, computer-savvy, able to afford travel by high-speed rail, already deeply skeptical of official propaganda.

There is no clearer sign of the rising influence of microblogs than their impact on government itself.

Last weekend, Wenzhou bureaucrats ordered local lawyers not to accept cases from families of victims without their permission. After weibos exposed them, they withdrew the order and apologized.

Railway workers had quickly buried the first car of the oncoming train at the site of the accident. On Monday, after an online outcry charging a cover-up, they unearthed it and took it to Wenzhou for analysis. China Daily, the state-controlled English-language newspaper, noted that they had met the request of "many netizens."

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"I call it the microblogging revolution," Zhan Jiang, a professor of international journalism and communications at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said in an interview Thursday. "In the last year, microbloggers, especially Sina and Tencent, have played more and more a major role in coverage, especially breaking news."

The few newspapers and magazines here that consistently push back at censors with investigative journalism are not just printing the results of their digging into the train wreck but posting them on weibos for millions to see. So were hundreds of more traditional state-controlled news outlets.

Even the Communist Party organ People's Daily maintains a weibo. But the field is dominated by two players. Sina Holdings Ltd.'s Sina Weibo (pronounced SEE-nah WAY-bo) counts 140 million users, generally better-educated and more interested in current events than those at competitors. Tencent Inc.'s weibo hosts 200 million generally younger users who are more interested in socializing.

In some ways, the Chinese weibos replicate their Western counterparts: They limit posts to 140 characters (although in Chinese, where many characters are words by themselves, much more can be said). Posts can be retweeted, too, although in China, tweeting is called knitting, because the word "weibo" sounds like the word for scarf.

There are also differences. Bloggers can comment on others' posts, turning a message into a conversation. Users also can include photographs and other files with their posts, to telling effect: Thursday, fact-checking bloggers posted photos of Premier Wen Jiabao's recent official activities to counter his assertion at a Wenzhou news conference that illness had kept him from visiting the disaster site earlier.

While Western social networks such as Twitter and Facebook are blocked here, their Chinese counterparts thrive, largely because their owners consent to government monitoring and censorship – and, perhaps, because the government fears the reaction should it shut them down. The outpouring over the rail tragedy appears to have enjoyed at least some official approval; many analysts believe the government sees microblogs as a virtual steam valve through which citizens can safely vent complaints.

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New York Times News Service

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