Four days after an apparent suicide car crash in front of the Tiananmen Square north gate, China’s online commentators are raising questions over how the government has handled the attack, which left five dead and 38 injured.
After the government declared the fatal crash to be a “terrorist attack” some inevitable comparisons were made by Chinese netizens to the attack in Boston earlier this year, when two bombs went off near the finish line of the annual Boston Marathon. Following news of the explosions, local and national media essentially went in overdrive. Many networks had wall-to-wall coverage of the victims, the suspects and the developments. Social media was even busier, with many people tweeting updates and information about the bombing. Unfortunately, in a race to be first with new information, a lot of unconfirmed or false details were published or broadcast. The media frenzy even led to the false identification and manhunt for a suspect who turned out not to be responsible for the attack.
As accurate details were finally released, criticism from the general public over the mishandling of information by the mainstream and social media flooded conversations. The media landscape became so oversaturated with information that it became difficult to determine what was true and what was speculation.
In China, the public seems to have the opposite problem. China’s government may have had a quick response time to the events, but did so quite differently. When an SUV violently crashed into a gate on Tiananmen Square as well as pedestrians, the vehicle burst into flames. China’s infamous censorship kicked in almost immediately, and not just online. The government quickly cleared the square and sealed off the area from tourists and media alike. The area was placed under martial law for three hours following the crash and clean-up on site was shockingly fast. The first news of the incident didn’t come until later that evening when a national news bulletin appeared at 7 p.m.
Social media response was active, according to the searches on Free Weibo, a website that is able to cache censored content on Weibo accounts. However, China’s government acted quickly in cracking down on any social media chatter. According to The Telegraph, photographs of the plumes of smoke and the vehicle that was ablaze were scrubbed from the Internet, as were eyewitness accounts posted online.
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China’s official news coverage of the alleged "terrorist" suicide crash is lax, to say the least. The online site of the country’s state-run newspaper, the China Daily, features nothing of the original story on the home page or any updates.
While the U.S. media received a great share of criticism, some in China seem to think freedom of information, including false information, is still better than controlled information. Shanghai-based news-blog Shanghaiist pulled up a quote by a popular Weibo personality, Jia Zhuang, who expressed how freedom to information and local media did eventually help citizens to mobilize and aid those in need quickly.
“Three hours after the Boston bombing, news websites and TV channels are streaming live news -- there is no ban on news reporting,” the blogger wrote. “Local police held a press conference immediately -- quick reaction plus transparent information and thus there is no rumor or panic. Google release Person Finder; the public offered help for those runners who are from outside of Boston of the country; thousands of people left their contact information. In the face of a severe situation, the government, the media, companies and individuals all work together smoothly.”
“It’s something we ought to learn.”