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China's High-Speed Rail Disaster And The Limits Of Censorship

China’s vaunted high-speed rail system is under new scrutiny in the wake of a July 23 train crash that killed 40 people and injured nearly 200 more. The crash followed reports of increasingly-serious concerns about corruption, shoddy construction, and safety risks on the rapidly-expanding system. Now, Chinese officials are scrambling to contain public outrage, and the government has declared a media blackout on the tragedy. But Chinese internet users are demonstrating fierce resistance to state censors, leading some to wonder if the crash heralds a new era in the development of an increasingly-assertive Chinese internet community. Are we witnessing a major shift? 

A 2008 survey reviewed by the Pew Internet & American Life Project suggests that widespread resistance to the government’s blackout attempt—though, to be sure, the scale of the backlash is still unknown—would signal a real change in Chinese citizens’ approach to censorship and the Internet. The survey found that “over 80 percent of [Chinese] respondents say they think the internet should be managed or controlled, and in 2007, almost 85 percent say they think the government should be responsible for doing it.” Most respondents said they found online content unreliable, and the information they did trust came mostly from government websites. (While 75 percent of respondents said they trusted “most or all the information” on government sites, just 46 percent said the same of established media sites.) The report notes that Chinese media is saturated with “widely publicized incidents of fraud, blackmail, sensationalism, and other abuse of Chinese citizens via the internet,” a problem which may explain why the number of respondents favoring restrictions on political content (broadly understood to include most public affairs, including the aforementioned abuses) has actually increased in recent years. It remains to be seen whether this trend will continue, but at the very least, state censors must be concerned by the widespread outrage sparked by this scandal—and by their inability to quell it.