BEIJING: The fallout from China's train crash has taken a surprising turn towards elite political struggles, with public attention now focused on Premier Wen Jiabao's remarks on Thursday that he visited the tragic scene late because he had been hospitalised for 11 days.
Questions raised after reports show he was at various public events
By Peh Shing Huei, China Bureau Chief
'I was in my sickbed for the past 11 days. The doctor only reluctantly allowed me to travel today. This is why I'm here only five days after the accident.'
Eagle-eyed netizens swiftly dug out state media reports of his numerous official activities during those days, leading experts to believe that there was strong disagreement among the top leaders on how to deal with the collision.
Mr Wen had said at the crash site near Wenzhou city: 'I was in my sickbed for the past 11 days. The doctor only reluctantly allowed me to travel today. This is why I'm here only five days after the accident.' But state media reports suggest that the 69-year-old Premier, who did not specify his illness, has had a packed work schedule during that period.
Last Monday, he hosted a welcome ceremony for visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
For the next two days, he presided over a meeting on climate change and chaired a State Council meeting on land management. Last Thursday, he met Cameroon President Paul Biya in the capital.
Three days later, on Sunday, a day after China's first high-speed train crash which killed 40 people and injured 192, he received a delegation from the Japanese Association for the Promotion of International Trade. Xinhua state news agency carried a photograph of a smiling Mr Wen greeting the Japanese delegation.
The uncharacteristic faux pas has stirred much speculation on why Mr Wen, who is known to choose his words carefully, gave such a flimsy explanation.
In the first place, China's top leaders very rarely discuss illness in public, particularly their own health.
This has led some observers to term Mr Wen's sickness a 'political illness' - using poor health as an excuse and tactic for political aims, a favoured move in China, particularly during the Maoist years.
Hong Kong-based analyst Willy Lam believes that it is indicative of trouble within the elite leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and that Mr Wen wanted to use it to express his unhappiness.
'There is likely to be disagreement within the Politburo Standing Committee on how to deal with this disaster,' he said, referring to the party's top decision-making body.'
He added that although the Railways Ministry comes under Mr Wen's State Council, or Cabinet, it has functioned much like an empire unto itself for years. China's railroads were widely known to be the private fiefdom of former minister Liu Zhijun, who was brought down in February on corruption charges.
'Wen has no control over the ministry. It was really embarrassing for him because he had to take responsibility and yet couldn't do anything,' said Dr Lam.
The authorities' handling of the tragedy's aftermath also gave rise to talk that top leaders may not be united in their responses.
While the Propaganda Department issued censorship rules to local media outlets to stop investigating the cause of the crash, these were brazenly ignored, a rare rebellion here.
Even the People's Daily, the ultra-conservative mouthpiece of the CCP, continued its scathing attacks on the crash, suggesting that it has the backing of some top leaders. State broadcaster China Central Television has done likewise.
City University of Hong Kong analyst Joseph Cheng said it is obvious that Mr Wen was under a lot of pressure to go to the crash site and salvage some confidence from both domestic and international audiences.
'With the pressure, perhaps he was careless in his remarks and not being 100 per cent honest,' he said.