Chinese authorities censor questions about Yangtze ship sinking

Beijing (dpa) – Chinese Premier Li Keqiang bowed his head Wednesday morning in a moment of silence for victims of a cruise ship accident on the Yangtze River.

Since the ship capsized in stormy weather Monday, state media have published many photographs of Li, sometimes drenched in water, leading rescue efforts for the 430 passengers still missing in China’s worst maritime disaster in decades.

On the popular social media platform Sina Weibo, dozens of Chinese internet users praised the premier for his “strong” hands-on leadership.

But according to Free Weibo, a censorship monitoring website, some comments criticizing rescue efforts or questioning the causes of the accident have been removed by censors.

In one deleted comment retrieved by Free Weibo, the commenter had asked a series of questions: “Why were so few people rescued? Why did the ship capsize and why were the captain and crew saved? Why did they not release a distress signal? When the ship encountered wind and rain, who had the responsibility to stop sailing?”

More than 4,600 search personnel have found only a few more survivors since the accident, state media reported Wednesday.

Only 14 people had been rescued, while 18 were confirmed dead, according to reports.

Most of the passengers on board were senior citizens in their 60s and 70s, the official Xinhua news agency said, with the ages ranging from 3 to 83.

Those rescued included the captain and the chief engineer, who are both being held in custody, according to local media reports.

It happened “so fast that the captain did not even have the time to send out a distress signal,” Xinhua reported earlier.

But Chinese citizens debated whether the captain should have tried to stay on board to send the signal.

“Maybe … the captain tried to swim to shore to ask for help but I wonder, isn’t there a communication system on such a big cruise ship? Why did the captain think he had to swim to shore to ask for help?” another commenter said on Weibo, in a comment that has not been deleted.

The China Meteorological Administration said Tuesday evening that a cyclone was detected in the area Monday evening.

Authorities have not announced the cause of the accident and it is unclear whether the captain had time to decide whether to continue sailing in poor weather.

Another passenger ship that also began sailing Monday afternoon pulled over to shore as the weather deteriorated, but the Eastern Star continued, the Chutian Metropolis Daily reported Wednesday.

The Hubei newspaper’s report was shared widely by other Chinese media, but by Wednesday afternoon it was no longer available.

The government appears to be limiting reporters’ access to the scene of rescue operations as well.

“Regarding the capsizing of the Eastern Star cruise ship, media from all locales must not dispatch reporters to the scene,” according to censorship instructions issued to local media by authorities, the China Digital Times reported.

“Reporters already there must be immediately recalled. All coverage must use information released by authoritative media as the standard,” the notice said.

Only journalists from Xinhua and China Central Television are allowed on the scene, Chinese journalists told the New York Times.

In 2011, authorities tried to control media reporting on the collision of high-speed trains that killed 40 people near the eastern city of Wenzhou.

“Use the standard information provided by the authorities. Do not reflect or comment,” the Central Propaganda Department had told state media following the train crash.

That incident had triggered widespread mistrust among ordinary Chinese, a problem the Chinese government will hope to avoid with the capsize of the Eastern Star.

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