According to the South China Morning Post (SCMP, online) on Sunday, China’s propaganda department’s (referred to as publicity department) directive or statement reads as follows:
After the serious rail traffic accident on July 23, overseas and domestic public opinions have become increasingly complicated. All local media, including newspapers, magazines and websites, must rapidly cool down the reports of the incident.
[You] are not allowed to publish any reports or commentaries, except positive news or information released by the authorities.
According to Singapore’s Morning News online (联合早报网), the directive read
In view of the particularly major 7-23 Ningbo-Taizhou-Wenzhou Railway line accident, popular sentiment within and without our borders tends to become complicated, and media in all regions, including their subsidiary papers and news websites, must rapidly cool down their coverage concerning the accident. Apart from positive information, and information about the situation issued by the authorized departments, no news and no commentaries must be published.
According to the SCMP report, the directive was issued to newspaper and internet editors at 9 p.m. on Friday. Newspapers compelled to scrap several of their originally drafted pages were the China Business Journal (中国经营报), the 21st Century Business Herald (21世纪经济报导), and the Beijing News (新京报). Even Xinhua had to warn its media subscribers not to use one of its investigative reports. A number of papers reportedly defied the directive.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association (which isn’t itself immediately affected by the directive, given the special administrative region’s basic law of its own) wrote in a statement on Saturday that it was appalled by the orders from the propaganda bureau and stated categorically that
Premier Wen Jiabao on July 28 when visiting the scene said that “investigation into the accident should be open, transparent and monitored by the public and that the process should be timely, and based on accurate information.”
Hong Kong is the only place in China that enjoys freedom of the press. We urge the Hong Kong media to stick to their job of reporting the truth, accurately and without prejudice so that the whole world will know what is going on. It is all the more important as Hong Kong is now building its part of this high-speed rail to link up with the mainland system. We must ensure that the system is transparently safe.
‘There was a wide-spread sentiment of depression (哀鸿遍野) on Weibo, writes Morning News. A number of newspaper editors explained their decisions there. A CCTV producer has reportedly been suspended for criticizing the ministry of railways (央视制片人因批评铁道部遭停职).
A Beijing News editor explained that after insisting and compromising (坚持又坚持、妥协又妥协) time and again, the remaining four pages have also been harmonized (被和谐). There was no other way; we had to take the rice bowls of more than two-thousand Beijing News employees into consideration (没办法，我们要为2000多个新京报员工的饭碗考虑).
The Weibo quotes in the Morning News report read like a who-is-who of the Chinese press; one editor after another seemed to voice his or her feelings.
On July 27, the Global Times, a state-owned window-speech paper in English, wrote that
[t]he train crash tragedy in Wenzhou has drawn more social reflection than most major accidents. Nowadays, almost all public events raise serious questions, but in the face of these, authorities often react reluctantly and ambiguously. [...] It is foreseeable that Chinese authorities and other relevant organizations will continue to suffer from this public crisis and that their clumsy performances when facing the public will become more obvious. This will damage China’s image and waste China’s political resources.
The SCMP wrote on Saturday that
[t]he media ban, imposed in an attempt to suppress the public’s anger, is likely to backfire by causing further frustration.
But most China watchers seem to overestimate the politbureau’s sensitivity. When there seems to be a need to choose between openness and thought control, thought control will carry the day. The matter wasn’t really decided on Friday (or anytime after the train crash). On principal, the pertaining decision was most probably made by the the Fifth Plenary Session of the Seventeenth Central Committee, in October last year, and some time prior to that, Wen Jiabao, chief state councillor and member of the politbureau’s standing committee, had probably lost a struggle for reforms of our political system.
(Politically) reformist officials may be allowed to wiggle forth for a few days, once in a while. But that has been the rule for centuries, at least. It may be tempting to forget who actually rules China, but that’s something foreigners are more prone to than Chinese people. “The sea that carries the ship of state” may heave a sigh, but it is long-suffering.
» Chinese Citizens should tolerate Censorship, March 26, 2011
» “Economic Observer ignored the directive”, NY Times, Aug 1, 2011