As the camera turned to Qiu Qiming, the well-known host of a nightly news show on China's official State-run broadcaster, he did something he had never done before. Instead of announcing the day's headlines, Mr. Qiu launched into a passionate plea.
“Can we live in apartments that do not fall down?” asked the anchor, a familiar face to millions on the daily broadcasts of the official China Central Television's (CCTV).
“Can the roads we drive on in our cities not collapse?” he went on.
“Can we travel in safe trains? And if there is a major accident, can we not be in a hurry to bury the trains? Can we afford the people a basic sense of security? China, please slow down. If you are too fast, you may leave the souls of your people behind!”
The CCTV anchor's words reflected the anger voiced by many middle-class Chinese in the past week, following the July 23 collision between high-speed bullet trains that left at least 40 people dead and more than 190 injured.
In the wake of the accident, Chinese journalists, intellectuals and thousands of citizens have criticised the government's handling of the accident, as well as voiced anger at a recent string of public safety and corruption scandals.
Much of the anger has appeared on the vibrant Chinese Internet, on widely popular Twitter-like microblogs such as Sina Weibo, which is used by more than a hundred million people, most of whom young and from the country's fast-growing middle class.
“The information elite is angry with this incident because they are demanding transparency and timely information,” said Shi Anbin, professor of media studies at Tsinghua University.
“I would say this anger is being fuelled by Weibo and that is unprecedented,” he told The Hindu, adding that online microblogs were “amplifying information that the government does not announce or make public”.
The bullet train collision was the first major accident that was reported on microblogs before covered by the official media in China.
Eyewitness accounts of the collision, along with pictures and videos, were already circulating on Weibo before State media put out any information.
Qiao Mu, director of the Centre for International Communications Studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said this unprecedented online access to information not only raised the bar in terms of people's expectations for information from the government, but also pressured State media to improve their reporting.
“This seems like a simple accident, but behind this middle-class anger are other sources,” he said. “Corruption is one, and lack of transparency is another. Why people are so concerned is that even before this, we had many problems with the high-speed railway, but there was not enough information about this.”
Microblogs have also provided a platform for Chinese to question hitherto unchallenged official narratives.
State-run newspapers have also appeared to take the cue from the Internet with unusually aggressive questioning of the high-speed rail programme and wide criticism of the Ministry of Railways in the past week.
Mr. Qiao said it remained unclear whether the government would continue to tolerate the rise of microblogs, or respond by increasing controls. Reports over the weekend said Wang Qinglei, a producer at CCTV, had been suspended from his work following the programme broadcast with Mr. Qiu's comments. Despite the government's warning, Mr. Wang, however, had the last word — at least on Weibo.
“As long as there is one teacher that works for poor kids, the nation has its future; as long as there is one doctor who turn down lucrative profit for the lives of people, this nation will survive; as long as there is one journalist who are bold enough to speak out, this nation still have its mind and soul,” he wrote.
In less than a day, that message had already been forwarded by almost 30,000 people.
Keywords: China train crash