Newspapers defy state orders with criticism of train disaster


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Leading Chinese newspapers have criticised the official handling of a fatal bullet-train crash, in an unprecedented act of defiance of a government ban on negative coverage of the disaster.

The Communist Party on Friday ordered newspapers to avoid all mention of the crash on 23 July that killed 40 people, except for "positive news or information released by the authorities", after the country's leadership was criticised for its attempts to cover up the disaster. The edict forced some newspapers to tear up their coverage and replace it with cartoons and unrelated stories.

But in a sign of the increasing failure of central control – and reflecting a sense of outrage that has swept online forums – prominent newspapers yesterday risked censure to ignore the edict and run stories that raised safety fears over China's rapid industrialisation. The Economic Observer, a highly respected business weekly, published an eight-page special on the crash, featuring a bleak photograph of the wrecked train overlain with a blood-red logo of the Railways Ministry.

Other coverage carefully disguised its critical tone. The Beijing News ran a story on its front page about the breakage at the Palace Museum in Beijing of a piece of pottery from the Song Dynasty. Its coded message was clear: The bowl broke into six pieces – six train carriages were derailed in Wenzhou in China's worst rail accident – and the museum accident happened because data was incorrectly entered by a technician. The Palace Museum was "very distressed" by the incident – and denied a cover-up after the news was announced days late.

The report ran above a photograph headlined "China's Speed", which showed Chinese swimmer Sun Yuan breaking the world record at the World Championships in Shanghai, but which could also be read as a comment on the high-speed rail obsession at government level.

Normally cowed by censors, the media has been voracious in its criticism of the government response; the crash dominated front pages last week.