And on the Seventh Day News RestedMedia silence a week after the Wenzhou train collision.
Yesterday was the seventh day after the Wenzhou railway crash that claimed dozens of lives and rocked the Weibo micro-blogging universe. The seventh day after a death in China is called touqi (头七) and is an important milestone of mourning. All across China, instead of paying respects to the lives lost on July 23, netizens were venting their fury at a system hellbent on burying all the facts under a mountain of oppression and obfuscation.
The storm began with a screenshot of a message that a journalist received on his cell phone, which seemingly forbade all media from mentioning or writing about the Wenzhou tragedy or paying respects on touqi. (Pictured right.) That heavy-handed, some might say absurd, attempt to stop the truth from spilling out across the newspapers and televisions provoked strong responses on Weibo.
One of the first comments last night came from the editor of Southern Daily’s investigative reports department:
Tonight, hundreds of newspapers are recalling tomorrow’s issue, thousands of reporters are killing their articles; China, tens of thousands of souls are wandering restlessly, millions of truths are being torn to pieces. This country, countless evil hands are humiliating you.
Information about 7.23 (as the Wenzhou tragedy is called here) disappeared off of the main pages of Sina, Tencent, Sohu, 163.com, People’s Daily, Xinhua and iFeng.com. Every single newspaper and every television station across the country shelved their memorial reports and turned instead to Party-approved news.
Weibo stood alone.
A Defining Event
Journalists and editors came out of the woodwork and posted their “harmonized” front pages onto Weibo, pages that were forwarded thousands of times as professors, intellectuals and just plain outraged netizens called for justice, each posting the picture or video that best summed up the crisis for them.
Wang Qinglei, the producer of CCTV’s 24 Hours program, was sent home from work after publicly protesting the way the government was handling the Wenzhou tragedy. He posted this after learning of the nationwide ban on touqi news:
A society will always have a few what I think are “basic professions”: teachers, doctors and journalists. If a nation still has at least one teacher willing to stay and teach children, then that nation still has hope; if a nation still has at least one doctor willing to heal the sick, that nation still has life; if a nation still has at least one journalist willing to defy authority and fix society’s ills, that nation still has soul. China has many!
Calls to wake up and rise up went across Weibo and others spoke of being part of a nationwide revolution against the barbaric destruction of civilization, against the ignorant evil oppressors of truth and against the traitors to the Chinese nation, the corrupt officials and the police that do their bidding.
A Silent Revolution
But Shen Yang, a professor of information technology at Wuhan’s Information Technology Institute, used the spread of news about the train collision to compare the power of micro-blogging with that of traditional media. His relevant conclusions:
1) Weibo is fast and explosive.
2) [News on] Weibo lingers at the top for two days, then slowly begins to descend.
3) Weibo reaches its peak a day before traditional media, but their reports are similar.
4) The amount of reports in traditional media is extremely high, reaching 13,600 at its peak.
And based on the graph Professor Shen supplied, traditional media also has a much longer trail. What this means is that the government (authorities, police, security apparatus, what have you) is content to let the middle-class intellectuals rail away online, just as long as the workers, laborers and peasants are kept ignorant and distracted. No one knows better than the Communist Party what can happen if the lower classes rise up, so their decision to keep the clamp down on public protests, threaten or pay off angry citizens and control the traditional media will prevail over the power of Weibo. For now.
In summary, let’s take a look at joke going around the Interwebs today that helps clarify the true difference between the power of newspapers and television and the power of microblogging:
A journalist asked a street sweeper, “What do you think about the 7.23 railway tragedy?”
The street sweeper righteously replied, “At least they didn’t make the common people pay for the trains!”