China's Cruise Ship Disaster Is World News, So Why Is Beijing Censoring Information About It?

06/06/2015 10:39 am ET | Updated Jun 06, 2015

Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic that's making headlines around the world. Today, we speak with Jeremy Goldkorn, the founder and director of Danwei.

China suffered one of the worst maritime disasters in its recent history this week when a cruise ship with more than 400 people aboard capsized in the Yangtze river.

The four-deck Eastern Star was on its way from the city of Nanjing to the city of Chongqing on Monday night when it encountered a severe storm and overturned. Fourteen people survived the tragedy, including the ship's captain and first engineer. Rescue teams had recovered 103 bodies by Friday night. More than 300 passengers remain missing.

Chinese authorities have severely restricted access to information about both the causes of the tragedy and the efforts to recover the victims' bodies. In recent days, however, families of passengers across the country have increasingly voiced frustration with that lack of information. On Wednesday night, several family members forced their way through a police cordon to get to the disaster site, and on Friday a relative of two of the passengers burst into a press conference demanding an investigation into possible human error.

The WorldPost spoke with Jeremy Goldkorn about the way Chinese authorities are handling the flow of information about the tragedy. Goldkorn is the founder and director of Danwei, a research firm that tracks Chinese media and Internet.

Several media outlets reported this week that Chinese authorities have kept a tight lid on information about the maritime disaster in Jianli. What are Chinese leaders aiming to accomplish by restricting information?

To put it in historical perspective, the Chinese Communist Party has always controlled information about disasters very tightly. The handling of the aftermath of disasters is obviously the government's responsibility, but there's also a long-held belief in the country that even the occurrence of natural disasters can in some way be seen as the government's fault. After the Tangshan earthquake in the 1976, the government basically tried to prevent any spread of information.

The government has been a lot more transparent in recent years, partly because the Internet has made complete coverups impossible. A look back at the Wenzhou train crash of 2011 helps explain the authorities' current reaction, because it was the first time social media made the government lose control of the narrative. In the weekend of the Wenzhou accident, most of the information about the train crash came from citizens who were posting on Weibo (a Twitter-like microblog service). The government was one step behind ordinary people writing about the tragedy and criticizing the government's response.

That really woke up the government to the possibility of social media, and there have been a number of measures put in place since then, not only to control narratives about natural disasters but also political dissent.

In the case of the cruise ship sinking, social media is certainly highly censored, and there is a lot of pro-government propaganda on social media talking about how the government is doing a good job.

Rescuers prepare near the capsized ship Eastern Star after it was righted by cranes on the Yangtze River in Jianli county of southern China's Hubei province.

How does the information that Chinese readers and viewers received about this tragedy differ from what an international audience gets to see?

There have been tight restrictions on Chinese news media. They're kept away from the scene and told to rely on the authorized copy put out by the Xinhua news agency.

International reporters have also struggled with access, but they certainly have greater freedom to report and publish what they want since they don’t take their orders from the propaganda department or the state council's information office. So in terms of actual reporting, foreign reporters have not had an easy time either, but they have much more latitude about what the organization ends up writing or broadcasting.

Has there been a public demand for more information?

There hasn’t been any kind of well-organized campaign, and if anyone tried to start one it would be wiped off the Internet. It looks like there have been some attempts by citizens to demand more information from the government or from the cruise company, and these have been repressed. In Shanghai for example, there were scuffles between relatives of people who were probably victims and the police, and it appears those people were trying to get information.

Divers transports a dead body next to rescue workers near the sunken passenger ship in the Yangtze river in Jianli.

Do you think the Chinese authorities' strategy is successful or counterproductive in the long run?

It is successful in limiting any kind of damage to the government's reputation in the short term, but one of the country's problems is that there's a tremendous lack of trust in Chinese society. Most people are suspicious of the story that they’re getting from the government. They usually won’t say that publicly, but one of the reasons why you get people clashing with the police is because they don’t believe what they’re getting told. This happens pretty much every time there’s a disaster of some kind. We saw it this week, we saw it when the Malaysian Airlines plane disappeared and after the New Year’s Eve stampede in Shanghai at the beginning of this year. So it is a successful strategy to minimize any kind of organized threat to the rule of the Communist Party, both in the immediate and long run, but it doesn’t do the Chinese government any good in building a society where there is more trust, both between citizens and also from citizens to the government. People are unable to organize dissent, but they aren't really going to believe in President Xi Jinping's much propagandized "Chinese Dream" either.

This article has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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