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China media reins in criticism over train crash

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By Chris Buckley

BEIJING (Reuters) - China's media are curbing combative reporting of a high-speed train disaster after what observers said were orders from the ruling Communist Party's propaganda arm, which on Monday drew fresh scorn from Internet users demanding unfettered news.

For a week, many Chinese newspapers defied censorship pressure and pursued unusually aggressive reporting of the July 23 crash that killed at least 40 people on two high-speed trains -- a technology the government had promoted as a shiny symbol of the nation's growing technological prowess.

Censors have stepped up demands for news media to wind down often withering criticism over the train disaster near Wenzhou, in eastern China, according to the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong.

But in a sign of the power of China's Internet to challenge state controls, users of Sina.com's Weibo site (http://weibo.com),

the nations most popular version of Twitter, posted messages denouncing the clampdown. Some cited Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's vow last week to pursue the truth about the accident openly and thoroughly.

"Why have the people been robbed of the right to know? How long do they want to hide," said one comment on Sina's Weibo site. "We won't accept being treated like idiots."

Chinese newspapers and magazines are all ultimately controlled by different arms of the state, but they compete for stories, readers and revenue in a fiercely commercial environment, encouraging more adventurous editors to skirt around, even sometimes defy, censorship.

The angry and instant tide of Internet opinion was making it harder for censors to smother news, said Lu Yuegang, a former investigative reporter for the Party-run China Youth Daily who denounced censorship and was removed from his job.

"These days, efforts to seal off the flow of opinion can't work like it did before," Lu said in a telephone interview.

"These crude censorship steps used to have some effect, but now the speed of the flow of information has surpassed them. On the contrary, the word about such restrictions simply deepens people's distrust in government."

CENSORSHIP PUSH

The Chinese Communist Party's Department of Propaganda often issues orders to editors and producers about what news topics are forbidden and how subjects should be reported.

"A notice demanded that Chinese media immediately cool down their reporting and commentary on the July 23 Wenzhou train crash, and scores of Chinese media had to move frantically to fill the gaps as planned reports on the crash were suddenly off limits," Qian Gang and David Bandurski of the China Media Project wrote in a comment about the fresh censorship push that they said began on Friday.

On Monday, several popular newspapers at the forefront of reporting the train disaster had shifted to more upbeat news, including a Chinese world record at the world swimming championships in Shanghai.

Qian and Bandurski showed several Chinese newspaper columns and commentaries that were quashed and never appeared after the censors stepped in (http://cmp.hku.hk).

"The only path to re-establishing public confidence is thoroughly investigating the truth," was the title of one quashed editorial in China Business View.

Weibo and other homegrown micro-blogging sites have served as lively arenas for public outrage over the train accident.

Thirty-seven percent of China's Internet users, or up to 125 million people, use micro-blogging sites, said a December report from iResearch, a Chinese consulting firm.

The Twitter-like Chinese websites allow users to shoot out bursts of 140 or so Chinese characters of often strongly worded opinion. Twitter itself is blocked in China, along with Facebook and other social media websites that are popular abroad.

Many Chinese citizens have used the Internet to lambast what they have called government efforts to cover up culpability for putting expanding high-speed train lines ahead of safety and then covering up aspects of the disaster.

"The Wenzhou train crash finally created an opportunity for people to speak out openly," wrote one Weibo user.

Officials have blamed faulty signal technology for the crash, but many commentators on the Internet have said China's high-speed rail push has much deeper problems, and some have accused officials of elaborate efforts to hide evidence.

"Whatever (comments) you cut, we'll post again," said one message on Weibo, which often removes comments deemed too critical of the government. "I really don't understand what the government thinks it can hide."

(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Ken Wills and Alex Richardson)