Saturday, May 19, 2001

Freedom to Dial

(Syndicated article for the Metro newspaper group).

Cellphone user in Beijing 2001.

When an elementary school in southeast China exploded in March -- killing over 40 students and teachers -- it was a blast heard round the world, with its story told via telephone and the Internet. And had this tragedy occurred a few years ago, the world may have never known what really happened.

“Everybody knows it was caused by the fireworks,” Zhang Chenggen told the Associated Press by telephone just after the accident. “The government is trying to cover the facts. Please do not believe them,” said this father of an 11-year old boy killed in the explosion.

But as the government officials in the province of Jiangxi erected roadblocks, detained roving reporters, bulldozed the school, and began -- formulating its official account of the blast -- Zhang, spoke candidly to the media and the world: “I was among the first batch of people to rush to the explosion site, and I saw the hands of some dead children still holding fuses.”

The Washington Times reported its phone conversation with man named “Chen” from the local fire department, who said, “debris at the site was littered with firecracker wrapping papers.” And according to the New York Times, reporters reached parents by dialing random numbers within the town’s telephone area code.

Several days later, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao called news reports like these “irresponsible…absurd and erroneous,” according to the state news agency Xinhua. “Some overseas media even attacked China by carrying these untrue stories with elaboration distorting the facts,” he added.

Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji would later explain in detail how a 33-year old suicide bomber -- nicknamed Psycho -- had blown up the school and himself.

But while in-person or snail-mail exchanges may have in the past slowed or halted the gossip and anger over this tale of child labor and death, the government was unable to stop the flow of information. “Today people can communicate instantly…200 to 300 million people (in China) have access to one way or another of staying in touch,” said Simon Cartledge of the South China Morning Post. “They can call…page…and they can e-mail,” he added.

It is now possible for residents to buy a temporary cell phone number without registering with the government, and numerous cyber-cafes offer anonymous Internet access (although chat-rooms are on time-delay and are censored by the government.)

“Allowing a huge swathe of its population to communicate openly and freely is perhaps the most astounding change China has undergone over the past decade,” Cartledge wrote.

Perhaps this free exchange of information is what prompted the Premier to later retract his earlier explanation of the cause of the blast. Ten days after the tragedy, Zhu told a live television audience: “No one can cover up historical truth. I want to apologize and review and reflect on my own work.”

Hans Sandberg

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