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Cracks in the Great Wall?

China continues to surprise; the latest shock — to foreign observers and to Chinese authorities — is the new boldness of what used to be a lap dog press.  Nobody quite knows where this is headed, but at the moment some Chinese journals and journalists seem to be defying official direction and getting away with it.

In the wake of last month’s high-speed rail crash that killed 40 people, the Chinese journalistic community has taken bold steps to defy official censors in its coverage of the accident. While an increasingly independent media has clashed with the government before — notably in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake — this latest round of disobedience has been even more pronounced and shows no sign of abating.

No longer able to fall back on government funding to keep themselves going, news outlets have to produce news that people want to buy. Meanwhile, widening access to the internet and social media forced journalists to keep pace with breaking stories and provided them with non-traditional outlets to publish information.

Another dynamic in play: when, as on the train crash, government positions are at variance with public opinion, individual journalists and bloggers can earn lasting popularity and respect by taking on the bad guys.  That popularity in turn offers at least partial protection against official wrath.

Likely government tactic: for now, continue to apologize and bow about the train mess like some Japanese envoy expressing contrition for World War Two.  This will blow over sooner or later; at that point the government can start whipping the press back into line without too much unrest.

This may be the government’s plan, but it may not work.  In a society as complex and fast moving as modern China, the scandals keep coming.  Another earthquake, some tainted baby formula, some embarrassing new corruption scandal: it just keeps coming at you.  Reporters and news organizations who know how to test the limits without crossing the red lines can keep pushing the envelope.

As a Chinese news editor told the Financial Times, “The party’s ability to bring us to heel is growing weaker and weaker.”

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