Photo Essays

Social Media Street Art Responds to Chinese Train Disaster

A deadly train accident in China becomes a source of social media street art on the highly censored Chinese microblogging site, Sina Weibo.

One of many media stories  questioning China’s silence over the July 23 train crash, this one in the Want China Times.

It’s been sad days here in China. On July 23, less than a month after the launch of the Beijing-Shanghai high speed railway line, two trains collided in Wenzhou, a city near Shanghai. Some 40 people reportedly died, and horrible images of the downed trains circulated around the internet, print media and television.

But I started noticing something as early as July 24. The Wenzhou train-related posts on Sina Weibo didn’t just continue. They grew. Netizen anger kept the collision at the top of Weibo’s trending topics for up to a week after the event, with some 10 million comments on the incident. The response was so strong that even the official news organ, China Central television, started putting pressure on the Ministry of Railways.

This isn’t, of course, your usual microblogging success story. Microblogging in China is subject to government regulations, and sites like Sina Weibo are required to censor material deemed too sensitive. We saw this in full effect as rumors of the death of former President Jiang Zemin began to circulate before quickly being quashed. Charles Custer at Penn Olson has a good overview of some of the implications:

Sina, like all domestic companies, is required to censor content on its site, but the train crash has proved too big for them to censor. It would be too obvious and dangerous to delete all 10,000,000+ messages about the accident, but deleting individual messages rarely works, as by the time a censor finds them they’ve been re-tweeted by dozens, hundreds or thousands of others.

The response fascinated me as an observer of and tinkerer with social media, but I honed in most on the artistic response. Since Weibo embeds images in posts, they naturally become part of the microblogging dialogue in a way more akin to Tumblr than Twitpics or Yfrog. And since images can’t yet be easily searched for by censors, ones that are critical of government bodies tend to have a longer shelf life than a purely verbal message.

This is what street art would look like on social media. Sina Weibo reminds me a bit of my native Silverlake/Echo Park area, home to much street art.  Silverlake is a relatively free wheeling town but when the police rolled in, they rolled deep. How to circumvent Sina’s po-po?  Images. The Wenzhou collision response images are visual, tolerated though perhaps officially not allowed, and they make use of existing public space to offer social critique, like street art. It’s this latter element — the subversive use of public space — that makes them unique from posting them on less-censored media like Twitter or Blogspot. They can only exist in a space like Sina Weibo, that’s both free and patrolled, driven by private interests, netizen interests and government interests.

I’m posting a small selection here, as a sketch. I left out those that require more background context and explanation, perhaps for a future post. [EDIT August 7: I’ve added a couple more.]

I like Charles Custer’s translation: “I’d rather believe this than the official explanation for the train crash.”
The official logo of the Ministry of Railways reimagined.
Translation: Raise up the truth! The word for raise, “ding” (顶) is often used as a “like” button as well.
(Loose) translation: Time to disembark. We’re home now.
“723” (July 23) has entered netizen lingo as shorthand for the Wenzhou train collsion.
This is a regular high-speed rail train ticket edited so that both destination and departure point read: diyu (地狱), or hell.
I found this one the most evocative and initially didn’t upload it as I felt it required too much explanation for this initial sketch. But the image kept lingering in my head. After seeing train collision images all week, I found this one abstracted the sight of the car hanging from the bridge. The character is ren (人),which can mean “person”, “human”, or “people”. I prefer to translate it hear as “humanity”.
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