A rescue ship and workers seen around a sunken ship in the Jianli section of Yangtze River, Hubei province, China
Photograph by Kim Kyung Hoon—Reuters
By Minxin Pei
June 3, 2015

The tragic sinking of a cruise ship that killed more than 400 passengers on the Yangtze River in China this week shows both how far China has come from its dark Maoist past and how far it still has to go to catch up with the advanced countries.

On the positive side, we can see clearly the enormous strides the country has made in managing emergencies and sudden tragedies. The Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang, was on the scene within 24 hours. A large-scale rescue effort was quickly organized. And the tragedy was covered in the official media.

Such a prompt response contrasts sharply with the cover-up typical of the era of Mao Zedong (1949-1976). For instance, during the Great Leap Forward Famine (1959-1961), which killed an estimated 36 million people, the Maoist regime imposed a blanket ban on any coverage of the catastrophe and prevented starving peasants from fleeing their villages so that the news of the famine would not spread to the rest of the country. In August 1975, heavy flooding caused the collapse of several dams in Henan province, killing more than 85,000 people. Again, the Maoist regime muzzled the press. Even today, few Chinese know the human toll of the Great Leap Forward Famine or the tragedy in Henan in 1975.

Yet, based on how the Chinese government restricts press coverage in recent accidents or tragedies (such as the May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, the high-speed train crash in July 2011, and the capsizing of the cruise ship on the Yangtze), the Maoist legacy seems alive and well.

In this particular case, following the capsizing of the cruise ship Oriental Star on June 1, the Chinese government imposed severe restrictions on press coverage on the incident. It ordered news organizations not to send reporters to the area where the tragedy occurred. Those journalists who defied the order found their access to the scene of the accident blocked by police. According to The New York Times, local hotels refused to accommodate journalists unless they had clearance from the Communist Party’s propaganda officials. Censorship of the Internet and social media has been intensified. Nearly all the coverage of the incident was conducted by media organs tightly controlled by the Communist Party (such as the official news agency, Xinhua, and the People’s Daily).

In the meantime, the Chinese government has released little information about the incident, such as whether the shipping company or the crew of the ship received any warnings about severe weather conditions. The shipping company, a state-owned enterprise, has also failed to answer questions from grieving family members.

Beijing’s aversion to transparency in handling such tragedies is not hard to fathom. Operating in a one-party state, the Communist Party jealously guards its image as a competent regime, and it views any evidence to the contrary as a threat to its legitimacy. Consequently, incidents that would not be treated as political become highly politicized. Since transparency may reveal some shortcomings of the government and thus damage its image, the party must ensure that only favorable information is provided to the public.

The Chinese government also has a fear of accountability. If facts are made fully public, government officials whose acts were responsible for accidents or tragedies will be held accountable and punished. This also would undermine the authority of the Communist Party. As a matter of principle, the party believes that it is above the law and unaccountable to the Chinese people. If the party wants to punish culpable officials, that is at its own discretion, not as a concession to the people.

Ironically, such efforts to conceal facts and cover up its flaws often backfire. The Chinese public is much smarter than their government thinks. As a result, the information released through official channels is deeply discounted, if not instantly discredited, by most citizens. Rumors, which often portray the party in a much less flattering light, spread fast and gain greater credibility than official versions of the events.

The ultimate loser from this vicious cycle is the Communist Party. Despite its massive investment in censorship and propaganda, the party’s inability to make governance more transparent has contributed to its image as an insensitive, insecure, dishonest, and retrograde regime, not a confident and progressive force for change. On some occasions, the lack of transparency and credible information causes popular outrage and even triggers violent riots.

The Oriental Star is the first high-profile tragedy that has occurred under Xi Jinping’s leadership, and the regime’s handling of the incident is particularly worrying. Xi and his colleagues came into office vowing to pursue reform and change. But when faced with their first real test on transparency, they failed.

Minxin Pei is the Tom and Margot Pritzker ’72 Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States

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