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Technology and Documentary Open Discussion of China’s Unspeakable Tragedies

By Maya E. Rudolph

"Karamay" (dir. Xu Xin)

A tragic automobile accident in China’s Gansu Province weeks ago has ignited a national outcry from both individual whistleblowers on microblogs and message boards, but also an unlikely source – the mainstream Chinese news media.

The New York Times‘s Michael Wines and Ian Johnson report:

Days after a nine-seat van crammed with 62 kindergartners slammed into a coal truck in northwest China this week, killing 21 children and two adults, the 21st Century Business Herald – a state-run, reliably nationalistic newspaper – did something extraordinary. It published a chart. In one column, the paper recounted recent school-bus accidents in which about 60 children had died. In an adjacent column, it listed the sums that selected Chinese government departments had lavished on new cars in 2010. No Chinese citizen needed a pencil to connect the dots.

Even as the needless loss of many young lives is mourned, the accident has already become a symbol of China’s social inequities and infrastructural trapdoors. The facts laid bare by the accident, while outrageous to civilians and press alike, are seemingly playing a broken record of government failure to privilege and protect ordinary citizens and “underscore the impotence that some Chinese feel in the face of authority.” Yet, even as these injustices are decried by Chinese bloggers and reporters, it seems significant that such forceful objections have made headlines, the facts surrounding the accident lambasted for all the world to see. In the legacy of such events, criticisms of government policies and grave missteps have not always been so easily shared.

The 2010 documentary Karamay, directed by Xu Xin, tells the haunting story of such a tragedy in the face of government negligence and practice of elevating bureaucratic interests above all else. Highly controversial for its unearthing of state secrets, Karamay unveils the harrowing truth of a long hushed-up tragedy. In December 1994, a performance of local children for visiting government officials at the Karamay Friendship Theater in Xinjiang turned disastrous when a fire killed nearly 300 schoolchildren. Using interview and historical footage presented more plainly than plaintively, Karamay pieces together the indisputably chilling story behind the horrifying accident: the children remained trapped inside the burning theater while government representatives were ushered out to safety. Perhaps most upsetting is the manner in which news of the fire was so heavily censored in the Chinese media and in society that the victim’s families were forbidden to publicly mourn their children. The story that unfolds in Karamay is a sobering portrait of grief, shameful secrets, and the powerlessness of individuals over a seemingly untouchable state apparatus.

Though the truth of the Karamay fire remained buried for years, the public uproar surrounding the recent Gansu school bus accident is somehow defying any and all efforts to muzzle the story that may have been made by state authorities. From the rare and significant criticism by a mainstream newspaper to the widespread outrage apparent online, the Chinese public is making known its horror and concern. The broken record may continue to play on, but increasing number of perturbed citizens and media outlets are speaking out – even as internet censorship and reporting rules tighten – against what they perceive to be the fundamental flaws of Chinese society and government ruling. While documentary films have served as crucial, albeit marginalized bullhorns for social justice, the vocabulary for social change is now growing off-screen, online, and into a less-inhibited public arena.

Wines and Johnson report on blogger’s dismayed reactions to the accident:

The news ignited indignant postings on China’s major social media platform, Sina Weibo. One of the country’s most influential bloggers, the social scientist Yu Jianrong, wrote that school buses were notoriously overcrowded, while government officials built themselves palatial offices and bought luxury cars. Other bloggers were even more blunt. “Qingyang is nothing but a representative of tens of thousands of places in China. It’s no more than the tip of an iceberg,” wrote one poster who called himself Kuaile de Jingling Laodie. “No matter how poor we are, or how much hardship there is, we cannot let the leaders suffer.”


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