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Revelations of accidents show China’s State censors lose their grip

Posted by Author on August 8, 2011

BEIJING (The Ottawa Citizen)— Reports of a radiation leak on a nuclear submarine have led China to impose tight censorship on more than 1,000 Chinese-language websites, in a further sign that hardliners hold the upper hand in Beijing.

The defence ministry issued a curt denial that any accident had occurred but the Chinese public has lost faith in official pronouncements, after attempts to stop “negative” reporting of a recent rail disaster. Many citizens, hiding behind online anonymity, have accused the authorities of another coverup.

“Why not deny it earlier and why delete all the reports online?” one wrote.
The high-speed rail crash, in which at least 40 people died, was a blow to a gigantic project which, like China’s nuclear strike force, is linked to the Communist party’s prestige.

It prompted open argument over a rush to development that many Chinese now dare to say has cut corners, cost lives, ruined the environment and steeped the state in corruption.

After the crash, Wen Jiabao, the prime minister and sole “liberal” in a highly authoritarian government, was swift to pledge truth and transparency. Instead, the reports of a submarine accident — which could not be independently verified — soon brought out the party’s ingrained Soviet-style instincts.

Word of the nuclear mishap at a top-secret naval dockyard in Dalian, in the northeast of the country, appeared first on Boxun.com, a Chinese-language website based in the U.S., then on a microblogging service, Sina Weibo, which has more than 140 million subscribers.

Reports said a radiation leak happened as technicians from a private firm, China Era Electronics Corporation, installed an electronic system on board the 8,000-tonne Type 094 Jin-class nuclear submarine.

The submarine is one of about six nuclear vessels in the Chinese fleet. Experts believe it has a small reactor about one-sixth the size of a nuclear power plant. Two Jin-class subs were photographed in the area by a commercial satellite in 2007.

The last known accident involving a Chinese submarine was an explosion on board a diesel-powered vessel in 2003 that claimed 70 lives.

After the latest alleged incident, the military sealed off the Dalian dockyard area and imposed a ban on any news, according to numerous microblog postings.

In response to faxed questions from the Global Times, a newspaper published by the government-owned People’s Daily, the defence ministry said: “No such accident occurred.” The paper, which is aimed at a foreign audience, gave no further details and there has been complete silence from the rest of the state-controlled media.

It was a classic example of how the regime handles a story causing international concern and appeared to highlight a habit of covering up bad news.

The response also caused outrage in South Korea, a near neighbour, where there were calls on China to come clean about any radiation.

“Chinese authorities must waste no time in providing Korea with credible information,” declared the conservative Chosun Ilbo newspaper. The government has so far done the opposite. A survey of Chinese-language websites showed that access was blocked to every site that reported the incident.

The reports from Dalian emerged on July 29, the day that censors decided to stop a torrent of critical reporting and comment on the rail disaster, which turned it into a national scandal.

The collision of two new high-speed trains on July 23 not only killed at least 40 passengers and injured 191 but was also a political and public-relations disaster for the Communist party.

The immediacy of the first reporting and the stark images of two gleaming bullet trains that smashed into each other on a viaduct near the city of Wenzhou astounded the Chinese public. It may also have wrecked China’s plans to sell the rail technology to Britain, the U.S., Malaysia and Brazil.

Investigations by Chinese journalists soon turned up stories of substandard cement, shoddy construction, hasty training and a culture of graft that went right to the top of the Ministry of Railways, a mighty state within a state whose minister was recently sacked for gross corruption.

Six days after the disaster the propaganda department forbade any negative coverage or inquiries into the crash. It contained typically crass instructions to focus on “touching stories” and “great love.”

It was too late to turn the tide of opinion, after cameras caught workmen trying to bury some of the torn cars, just as it emerged that some passengers may have lived for hours after officials claimed there were no more survivors.

Source: The Ottawa Citizen

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