By Leslie Chang Staff Reporter Of The Wall Street Journal

March 13, 2001

BEIJING -- A deadly explosion at a remote school is resonating across the country -- revealing the difficulties the Chinese government faces as it tries to maintain its monopoly on truth in an age of instant information.

When an explosion last week at an elementary school in impoverished Jiangxi province claimed the lives of 42 schoolchildren and teachers, Chinese reporters jumped on the story -- at once a tragic tale and a typical one in a country marked by lax safety standards. Domestic newspapers and Internet sites wrote of third- and fourth-graders forced for two years to install detonators in firecrackers on school premises, a makeshift operation run by the teachers to supplement their paltry incomes. Parents were quoted saying they had protested the situation for years.

Breaking News Coverage of the deadly explosion at an elementary school in China

TUE. MARCH 6 An explosion at the Fanglin Village Elementary School destroys four classrooms and kills 42 people, mostly children.

WED. MARCH 7 Chinese newspapers and Web sites begin to carry reports on the blast.

THURS. MARCH 8 Many Chinese published reports cite sources saying that the school's teachers and other officials had forced children to make fireworks without pay since 1998.

Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji tells Hong Kong reporters an investigation disclosed that the cause of the explosion was a deranged man walking into the classroom with two bags of fireworks; he says there were no explosives stored at the school.

FRI. MARCH 9 The official Xinhua news agency reports that a villager carried two bags of fireworks into the classroom and caused the explosion.''

MON. MARCH 12 The online version of the People's Daily runs an article headlined: "Jiangxi Explosion Survivors: Students Were Absolutely Not Making Fireworks."

Then Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji, speaking with Hong Kong reporters two days after the accident, denied that explosives were housed at the school. Instead, he blamed a mentally ill man who he said carried two bags of fireworks into the school. "It's certain it's not the case of the primary school renting out space for the storage of raw materials," Mr. Zhu told Hong Kong television.

Instantly, newspapers quashed their investigative reports in favor of official statements. Web sites purged chat rooms of offensive comments, including widespread skepticism about the official line, and cut links to earlier stories about the accident. A nascent debate about the difficulties faced by rural schools -- an issue to which the government itself has repeatedly tried to draw attention -- was stopped cold.

But the very need for damage control highlights the difficulty in controlling the flow of information in today's China. After 20 years of moving toward a market economy, China is a partially open society in which newspapers, Web sites and even local officials don't always act predictably, and almost always act faster than Beijing does.

"This shows the limits to which the government can control information," says Yang Dali, associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago. "The media has done well in focusing attention on the [explosion] ... and the Internet has become a major player in holding the government accountable."

Take China's domestic press. Technically, all newspapers answer to the [party's name ommited], and on politically sensitive issues such as the crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual group, they parrot the official line. But on a range of nonpolitical issues, from environmentalism to local corruption, reporters have been given leeway to write critical stories. And when there's an event on which Beijing hasn't yet set down the party line -- such as the Jiangxi blast -- many reporters write first and ask about policy later.

Fueling the increasing boldness is the Internet. While its reach is still limited -- a mere 20 million of China's population of 1.2 billion are estimated to be online -- the Internet's impact on news gathering is magnified. Leading Web sites compile newspaper reports from around the country, ensuring that stories once seen by a tiny local audience quickly spread nationwide.

Web sites and newspapers also feed on each others' reports to push coverage forward. The sheer number of Web sites guarantees that things fall through the cracks: Even the Web site of the People's Daily, the party organ, Monday carried a link to an obscure paper in Anhui province that continued to discuss child labor at the Jiangxi school.