BEIJING - Years from now, when historians recount how China's Communist Party eventually lost its stranglehold on information, they may cite the events after an explosion in a tiny village in the hills of Jiangxi Province.
On March 6, an elementary school blew up in the village of Fanglin and left more than 40 people dead, most of them children. Reporters for regional Chinese newspapers contacted victims' parents, who blamed the blast on teachers who forced students to make firecrackers during class. According to parents and some local officials, the practice was common in schools throughout Jiangxi's Wanzai County.
Two days after the disaster, which made headlines around the world, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji publicly denied that children were making firecrackers in the school and blamed the blast on a suicide bomber.
What followed was rare in China: state-owned regional newspapers in open contradiction with the country's central leadership on a major event. China's authoritarian regime, which depends on the censorship of information for its survival, had lost control of what quickly evolved into an embarrassing, international story.
How a tale of firecracker manufacturing spread from a remote village to the rest of China and then around the globe speaks volumes about how technology and an increasingly aggressive Chinese press are changing who controls information here and how it is disseminated.
It is a story about how poor, angry villagers with telephones, enterprising local reporters and the rapid growth of the Internet blindsided the regime's vaunted propaganda machine.
"It speaks to the erosion of the control of the Chinese Communist Party over news reports," said Joseph Man Chan, a professor of journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "Things of this kind will happen in the future and when it happens often enough, the authorities will lose their power to define reality."
The Communist Party remains in power, in part, because it has excelled at defining reality. With complete ownership of newspapers, television and radio stations, as well as a virtual ban on outside news sources, the regime can beam its version of events to the nation's 1.3 billion people with often startlingly effective results.
Consider: Twelve years after soldiers slaughtered hundreds of unarmed civilians during the Tiananmen Square uprising, most Chinese know little more than the government's official version that it was putting down a counterrevolutionary riot instigated by thugs.
In handling disasters, the regime has shown equal skill. In 1975, two dams in Central China's Henan Province collapsed, killing from 85,000 to 230,000 people. The government kept the death figures secret for two decades until an overseas human rights group publicized them in 1995.
Changing news media
In the Internet Age, though, shaping coverage of such events is proving much tougher. Last week, the government lost control of the story in Fanglin, a village so remote that it takes 45 minutes from any main thoroughfare to reach by motorcycle along a muddy track, according to Hong Kong's South China Morning Post.
One reason the regime couldn't manage the story is because China's news media have changed.
While the nation's press still follows Beijing's line on political issues, the government has loosened controls in recent years and allowed journalists to report more aggressively on other matters, including disasters and public corruption. Stripped of state subsidies, China's news media have become profit-driven and often compete on stories.
So, when word of the explosion in Jiangxi broke on the Internet last week, regional newspapers pounced. Without clear direction from the government's official news agency, Xinhua, reporters did what reporters usually do: interviewed victims' families.
Parents described the school as a sometime fireworks sweatshop where children were forced to kneel on the floor if they refused to work. Many said they had complained to school officials, who had ignored them.
Computers and phones
A few years ago, the parents' version of events might not have traveled beyond the narrow circulation area of China's provincial newspapers. Last week, though, angry accounts of child labor ricocheted across the country via newspaper Web pages and Internet chat rooms.
Any Chinese with access to a modem could read them. Since the Internet opened in China in 1994, it has grown exponentially. At the end of 2000, an estimated 22.5 million people were online. The number is expected to grow to 35 million by the end of this year.
A day after the explosion, police set up roadblocks outside Fanglin to keep out foreign reporters and prevent the news from spreading abroad. Three overseas journalists were detained.
Four years ago, when villagers in Fanglin didn't have telephones, this strategy might have worked better. But today, at least 20 households have phones.