BEIJING (Reuters) - The backlash over a train crash that killed at least 40 people has handed a stinging lesson to China's ruling Communist Party, struggling to keep up with a public whose thirst for candour and accountability is outrunning traditional top-down controls.
The popular anger unleashed by last Saturday's high-speed rail accident in eastern China and echoing this week across the Internet and in an emboldened press, has shown that China's heady economic growth has not inoculated leaders from widespread popular distrust of secretive and remote officialdom.
The surge of anger hasn't approached any level that would challenge Party rule. But it has served as a warning to Beijing leaders that censorship is a weak weapon against opinions speeding across the Internet.
China is facing a tricky leadership transition late next year, and the furore over the train deaths near Wenzhou city in Zhejiang province has shown how popular discontent could upset the political script and test state censorship and controls, especially if a bigger crisis erupts.
"The impact has been so deep this time because this event reflects estrangement between the public and the government, and a ferment of public distrust in government," said Xie Yue, a political scientist at Tongji University in Shanghai, speaking of the outpouring of public and media criticism.
"The Wenzhou incident shows the level of public discontent and distrust has deepened, and sometimes the suspicions don't even have any basis," said Xie, who studies how authoritarian governments respond to social change and unrest.
"People feel that whatever the government does is not enough or too late, because there's less and less confidence in the government. That's because of corruption and people feel they have not gained enough from economic growth and reforms."
This is not the first time accusations of cover-ups and censorship have been levelled at Beijing's stability-obsessed rulers. Nor is it the first time the government has promised to be open.
Eight years ago, then recently-appointed Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao raised their stature as new leaders by vowing greater candour and accountability after officials tried to cover up the SARS epidemic.
Yet still the scandals happened, often followed by public outrage.
In 2008, Chinese officials initially covered-up the poisoning of nearly 300,000 children from drinking powdered milk laced with the industrial compound melamine, terrified of deflecting attention away from the Beijing Olympics.
"There has been progress in more quickly disclosing information, but the Internet is forcing that change, because with the Internet and microblogging, witnesses and the public can spread news nationwide instantly, so the government can't control information like it did," said Xie, the Shanghai-based political scientist.
Now as Hu and Wen enter the twilight of their time in power, even Wen had trouble winning over citizens when he visited Wenzhou on Thursday.
Wen told reporters there that illness had kept him from visiting the crash site sooner, and he promised a full and candid accounting of what caused the train crash. Some citizens took his words with a big pinch of salt.
"Premier Wen may have made a lot of promises on having a thorough investigation to find the culprits but it feels like it is the usual rhetoric," Chen Nian, a resident in Wenzhou, told Reuters.
"How can it be a full and transparent investigation when parts of the train have been deliberately buried?" Chen added, reflecting the widespread belief the railways ministry buried the derailed carriages to hide evidence and bodies.
The Internet, especially China's popular Twitter-like microblogging site Weibo, has resounded with conspiracy theories about the crash and bold calls for senior officials to resign to take responsibility, despite pervasive online censorship.
"To me, the accident has demonstrated the power of social media and how authorities can no longer bury things and pretend that they never happened just by controlling traditional media," 30-year-old migrant worker Quan Xin told Reuters in Wenzhou.
Wen told reporters he had been too ill to travel to Wenzhou earlier, but some commentators on the Chinese Internet asked why other leaders, including President Hu Jintao, had not visited.
"To a certain degree, this has triggered a crisis of confidence in government credibility and administrative ability," Yu Guoming, a professor of journalism at Renmin University in Beijing who studies public opinion, told a Hong Kong newspaper, the Wen Wei Po.
China's state-run media, initially ordered only to write positive stories and not question the official account, had by mid-week begun to ignore those directives and turn their invective on the Ministry of Railways. On Friday, Chinese newspapers continued to thunder against the ministry.
"Unless the Ministry of Railways abandons its arrogance, it will forever remain off the list of those the public trusts," said a commentary in the Southern Metropolitan Daily, a popular tabloid published in the southern province of Guangdong.
"Given that trust has already fallen to zero, it will be very difficult for people to believe that the railways apparatus can mend itself."
Wenzhou's Qianjiang Evening News rejected the apology on Thursday from the Beijing institute that designed the faulty signals technology blamed for the accident.
"The problem is: how could a product with such drastic design flaws enter into the rail system?" said the paper.
China's leaders will probably emerge bruised and shaken from their latest encounter with a populace impatient with past ways. But it would take a much wider crisis to shake their entrenched top-down rule, said Ding Xueliang, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who studies Chinese politics.
"This is one of many things that have triggered huge public disappointment and anger, but I do not see this as something like the Chernobyl incident in the former Soviet Union," Ding said.
Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee in BEIJING, and Fayen Wong in WENZHOU; Editing by Ken Wills and Jonathan Thatcher