BEIJING // The public and media response to a recent crash between two high-speed trains on a line near Shanghai that killed 40 highlighted a trend in the Chinese media that is slowly becoming more common: questioning the state.
After an outpouring of anger, amid allegations corruption may have compromised safety, the tragedy has shown what some commentators believe is a growing assertiveness among the country's media and bloggers. Official attempts to ensure positive coverage of the crash have been roundly criticised.
Lee Chinchuan, the head of the Department of Media and Communication at the City University of Hong Kong, said blogs and other internet postings were "beginning to play a very important role" in loosening the state's grip on media.
"You can take pictures, post it on the internet right away, so it would be very difficult to deny it," he said.
While some overseas microblogging sites such as Twitter are banned in China, Professor Lee said the authorities struggle to control what is said on domestic websites.
"You can do so much. But whether you can expunge all these messages in ways that would muffle all the voices is difficult," he said.
In the days after the accident on July 23, even state-run newspapers ran stories that asked if corruption had compromised safety on the country's fast-growing high-speed rail network. The railways minister was sacked earlier this year over alleged corruption. There were also articles in which the public questioned whether the official death toll was accurate.
The China Youth Daily, a Communist Party-controlled newspaper, said the railways ministry's assurances over safety were "not very convincing", while another paper published an image of a railway ticket smeared with blood.
Amid growing anger and concerns over a possible cover-up, the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, visited the crash site last week, bowing in front of a pile of flowers left in tribute to those who died and promising a full and transparent investigation.
Yet his visit created controversy. Mr Wen claimed he had been delayed from going to the site by illness, only for netizens to point out that he had carried out official engagements while he was supposedly sick.
After heavy media criticism, the authorities were forced to scrap an order that forbid lawyers from representing crash victims without permission.
On Friday, the government's propaganda department issued a directive ordering that good news about the crash should be emphasised. Some media have complied, but others have continued to question what has happened. The Hong Kong Journalists' Association said it was "appalled" by the directive.
Prof Lee said critical coverage should not be seen as a watershed because scathing reports about the government have been published after previous tragedies.
Reports followed a familiar pattern of "bursts of coverage" followed by orders aimed at ensuring more positive stories.
"It's wave like. You have to beat the clock, to cover it before the authorities begin to develop a directive," he said.
Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong, also said the examples of coverage in state-run media that questioned what had happened did not show China's press was becoming freer. Local media felt "much less restrained" in this case, he said, only because the story was getting so much international coverage.
"This is a major incident, there are strong feelings domestically. Internationally there are all types of reports. The central authorities cannot dictate a line to the local media," he said, adding officials "would certainly try" to keep a tighter rein on media coverage after incidents that failed to attract international attention.
Also, not all internet postings or reports have criticised authorities. Some have instead taken aim at a regular target in China - foreign media. One posting complained of the "muckraking nature and selective hype-up" of overseas media keen to "vilify China".
The state-run China Daily printed an opinion piece by the Russian-born American writer and filmmaker Andre Vltchek saying "immediately after the accident, Western and Japanese propaganda went to work" to "discredit China's achievements".
In a sign that the positive-spin directive was being heeded, the state-run Global Times newspaper yesterday carried the front-page headline "High-speed rail sees good first month: ministry" above a story on the recent launch of the Beijing-to-Shanghai fast train.