BEIJING: 'After all the wind and storm, what's going on with the high-speed train?' read the prophetic message posted on Saturday evening on the Chinese microblog Sina Weibo. 'It's crawling slower than a snail. I hope nothing happens to it.'
They were a few short sentences, typed by a young girl with the online handle Smm Miao. But five days later, the torrent that followed them was still flooding this nation's Internet, and lapping at the feet of government bureaucrats, censors and the state-controlled media.
The train the girl saw, on a track outside Wenzhou in coastal Zhejiang province, was rammed from behind minutes later, killing 40 people and injuring 192. Since then, China's two major Twitter- like microblogs - called weibo here - have posted 26 million messages on the tragedy, including some that have forced embarrassed officials to reverse their actions. The messages are a potent amalgam of contempt for railway authorities, suspicion of government explanations and shoe-leather journalism by citizens and professionals alike.
The swift and comprehensive blogs on the train accident stood this week in stark contrast to the stonewalling of the Railways Ministry, already stained by a bribery scandal. And they are a humbling example for the Communist Party news outlets and state television, whose blinkered coverage of rescued babies only belatedly gave way to careful reports on the public's discontent.
While the blogs have exposed wrongdoers and broken news before, this week's performance may signal the arrival of weibo as a social force to be reckoned with, even in the face of government efforts to rein in the Internet's influence.
The government censors assigned to monitor public opinion have let most, though hardly all, of the weibo posts stream onto the Web unimpeded. But many experts say they are riding a tiger. For the very nature of weibo posts, which spread faster than censors can react, makes them beyond easy control. And their mushrooming popularity makes controlling them a delicate matter.
Saturday's disaster is a telling example - an event that resonated with a growing middle class, computer-savvy, able to afford travel by high-speed rail, and deeply sceptical of official propaganda.
There is no clearer sign of the rising influence of microblogs than their impact on government itself.
Last weekend, Wenzhou bureaucrats ordered lawyers not to accept cases from families of victims without their permission. After the microblogs exposed them, they withdrew the order and apologised.
Railway workers had quickly buried the first car of the oncoming train at the site of the accident. After an online outcry charging a cover-up, they unearthed it and took it to Wenzhou for analysis.
'I call it the microblogging revolution,' international journalism and communications professor Zhan Jiang of Beijing Foreign Studies University said on Thursday. 'In the last year, microbloggers, especially Sina and Tencent, have played more and more a major role in coverage, especially breaking news.'
The few newspapers and magazines here that consistently push back at censors with investigative journalism are not just printing the results of their digging into the train wreck but posting them on weibo for millions to see. So were hundreds of more traditional state-controlled news outlets. Even People's Daily maintains a microblog.
But the field is dominated by two players. Sina Holdings' Sina Weibo counts 140 million users, generally better-educated and more interested in current events. Tencent's weibo hosts 200 million generally younger users who are more interested in socialising.
Unlike Western microbloggers, bloggers here can comment on others' posts, turning a message into a conversation. Users also can include photographs to telling effect: On Thursday, fact-checking bloggers posted photos of Premier Wen Jiabao's recent official activities to counter his assertion that illness had kept him from visiting the disaster site earlier.
While posts can be deleted, there are always screenshots to preserve them, such as this one by Chinese actor Ge You: 'If a higher-level leader died,' he wrote, 'there would be countless wreaths; however, when many ordinary people died, there was only endless harmony' - a euphemism for censorship.
'If a higher-level leader died, there would be nation-wide mourning; however, when many ordinary people died, there was not a single word of apology.
'If a higher-level leader died, there would be high-end funerals; however, when many ordinary people died, there were only cold numbers.'
NEW YORK TIMES