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China Tries To Put A More Positive Spin On Cruise Ship Sinking


China's government has ordered many Chinese journalists to stop covering one of the country's worst disasters in recent memory. A capsized cruise ship on the Yangtze River has left more than 60 confirmed dead, and that number is expected to pass 400. NPR's Frank Langfitt explains how the Communist Party is trying to shape a more upbeat narrative of a tragedy.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: If you watched China's state-run TV over the last several days, you'd have seen government press conferences with people like Guan Dong, a navy diver who rescued two passengers from inside the capsized ship.


GUAN DONG: (Through interpreter) When I went down, the first feeling I had was fear brought on by the darkness.

LANGFITT: State media praised Guan's good looks, and a naval official praised his decision to give his respirator to a survivor.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) This shows, first, he is brave. Second, he is smart. So I am here to report this to everyone.

LANGFITT: No one would question the diver's courage. But this isn't the full picture of the cruise ship disaster. For instance, China's state media have not aired images like this.


LANGFITT: Cell phone video of passengers' family members scuffling with police in Shanghai, demanding help so they can travel to the site of the wreck hundreds of miles away on the Yangtze River. The video circulated on Chinese social media, which the government is also heavily censoring. Qiao Mu is associate professor of media studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University. He says the government is emphasizing its rescue efforts to strengthen and defend its image.

QIAO MU: They don't want tell people negative side of events. They want to just tell you good side. Even this event is a tragedy, is disaster, but they still want to show the positive sides of the Communist Party.

LANGFITT: Officials say the ship capsized after being caught in a rare tornado. Family members have been desperate to visit the scene, but until today, authorities have blocked them.

DAVID WERTIME: My name is David Wertime. I'm a senior editor at Foreign Policy magazine.

LANGFITT: Wertime says the government probably wants to avoid the heartbreaking images that would emerge as family members watched loved ones pulled from the ship.

WERTIME: That would be extremely powerful, and that's something that would not really serve the government's interests.

LANGFITT: After relatives criticized the decision in foreign media reports, the government today did begin taking them to the river bank in buses and under supervision. Even though the sinking was the result of a natural disaster, family members have questioned the ship's safety record and whether the government did all it could to prevent the accident. That may be why officials have at times physically barred family members from talking to foreign reporters. As Wertime says, it's not a narrative the government wants pursued.

WERTIME: Family members are going to be much more critical. And so that's what the government is worried about, is these people may feel at this point like they have very little to lose right now from saying what's on their mind and from questioning the official line.

LANGFITT: Earlier this week, the government told many news editors to recall their reporters and rely on versions from official government media. Qiao Mu, the professor, said one journalist he knows was heading to the site by train and forced to turn back. Other reporters have stayed on, but one I spoke with admitted she's self-censoring what she writes. Wertime says, this is all by design.

WERTIME: Family members who can't go to the river banks, reporters who are being told to go home. What are you left with? I mean, you're really only left with one voice that speaks the loudest.

LANGFITT: And that, he says, is the government. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Hubei province. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
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