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Malcolm Moore: Internet drives a new wave of unrest in China

WHENEVER China suffers a major disaster, a visit from Wen Jiabao, or "Grandpa Wen", is usually enough to comfort the victims and reassure the country that its Communist leaders are looking after them.

So five days after two Chinese bullet trains collided in the south of the country, killing at least 39 and injuring more than 200, Mr Wen duly arrived at the scene.

Standing on a patch of gravel yesterday that had been cleared of the wreckage, the Chinese premier promised to "get to the bottom" of what had gone wrong and apologised for not arriving sooner, blaming an 11-day illness and doctor's orders to rest.

In the past, that might have been the end of it. But yesterday, Mr Wen only succeeded in ratcheting public anger up a notch.

Within hours, photographs of him in seemingly perfect health at various functions during the past week had been posted on the internet and Mr Wen was accused of being a liar. His tears at the sites of various disasters over the years had already earned him the mocking title of China's "Best Actor".

What has changed over the past year is partly the growing inability of China's leaders to control free speech, both in the traditional media and over the internet.

Journalists have openly defied instructions from China's censors not to report on the train crash and even CCTV, the state broadcaster, has turned on the government.

"Can we live in apartments that do not fall down? Can the roads we drive on in our cities not collapse? 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," said Qiu Qiming, a CCTV news anchor, live on air.

The emergence of Sina Weibo, a clone of the Western website Twitter that allows 200 million Chinese to post their thoughts in real time, has resulted in a deluge of information the government is finding difficult to control.

"Thousands of web users were posting real eye-witness accounts, photos, videos," said David Bandurski, a researcher at the China Media Project in Hong Kong.

"Traditional media, including solid professional outfits as well as the party media, have been using Weibo to aggregate and share information.

"Ordinary users, journalists, writers, lawyers, academics, intellectuals, a broad swathe of people, have been digging out old media coverage that illuminates these recent events," he said.

Shi Anbin, a professor of media studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said the availability of information on Weibo had helped mainstream media to push the boundaries and caused the public to lose confidence in the government.

"Weibo is amplifying information the government does not announce. There is pressure from these grassroots (for the media to be more critical).

"CCTV has heard the message. I think the leadership has acknowledged it too," he said.

For the middle class, there is anger over safety scandals and corruption.

For China's workers, the anger stems from rapidly rising prices, an absurd wealth gap, and a constant helplessness against injustice.

In the past week, villagers near Foshan in Guangdong province attacked and overturned a police car before roping the policemen to the car and attempting to set it on fire.

IN Anshun, Guizhou province, hundreds of rioters fought with police for hours after a disabled fruit seller was beaten to death by officials on the street in broad daylight.

As it loses the battle to control the population through the media, the government has resorted to sending squadrons of paramilitary police on to the streets of several cities.

But it has not been able to stop the number of riots from tripling in the past five years to 180,000 in 2011 -- or 493 a day -- according to a professor at Tsinghua University.

So far, there is no indication that the bubbling public anger of the past few weeks is a threat to the Communist party. But Beijing is jittery about the prospect of an Arab Spring. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent