THE TRAGIC sinking of a cruise ship on the Yangtze River on Monday night produced a reflexive reaction from China’s communist authorities: censorship. Within hours of the disaster, which left more than 440 people dead or missing, authorities were scrubbing the Internet of questions or comments about the Eastern Star and its passengers. News media were ordered not to send journalists to the scene, to recall those already there and to rely on the official state news and television agencies for their information. Instead of providing detailed accounts, those outlets focused their coverage on Premier Li Keqiang, who was portrayed as resolutely leading rescue efforts.
All of this was reminiscent of China’s handling of previous disasters, ranging from the 2003 SARS epidemic to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake to a 2011 high-speed train crash. In fact, what has been distinctive so far about the cruise ship sinking is the way the regime of President Xi Jinping has outdone its recent predecessors in suppressing independent reporting and commentary. After the earthquake, local and foreign journalists were allowed to report relatively freely for several weeks — until some began focusing on shoddy school construction that could have contributed to the deaths of thousands of children. The train wreck was widely reported on social media, prompting outrage that led to the dismissal of senior railway officials.
Mr. Xi’s regime appears determined to head off such pressure for accountability by suppressing all independent reporting and commentary on the cruise ship from the start. According to reports by foreign journalists, roadblocks have been set up more than a mile from the scene of the sinking, near the county of Jianli. A report by a local newspaper about another ship that docked in the face of deteriorating weather Monday disappeared after it was cited by other media. While one group of foreign journalists was taken on a government-managed tour to see the sinking site, those seeking to report independently were blocked.
Even relatives of the missing were muffled. According to the Los Angeles Times, a young woman desperately seeking her boyfriend posted her phone number online and asked anyone who had information about him to call. Authorities responded by blocking her from posting messages.
By late Wednesday, there were signs that the censorship was backfiring. Dozens of relatives of those missing gathered outside Shanghai’s main government building to demand information and exchanged shoves with police. Another group hired its own bus to travel to Jianli, then marched toward the river in protest, according to Reuters. In a statement, family members raised some pointed questions: Why did the boat not dock? Why did crew members, including the captain and chief engineer, account for most of those rescued? Why was no alarm sounded?
The stirrings showed that Mr. Xi’s attempt to impose Stalinist-style information controls may not work in 21st-century China. His regime would foster more trust were it to follow the examples of neighbors such as South Korea and Taiwan, which live-streamed video of rescue efforts after recent disasters and encouraged debate about what went wrong. In attempting to shield the regime from criticism, Beijing’s censors are only adding to public embitterment.