Dissent in China
When the story of Chinese democracy is written, a train crash in Wenzhou will deserve a special mention
Aug 6th 2011 | from the print edition
CHINA’S history is full of natural and man-made disasters. Indeed, the ruling Communists think it vital to their own survival to manage these so that they reflect well on the party. By this reckoning, they have done well until now. But the storm created among ordinary Chinese by the collision of two new high-speed trains outside the city of Wenzhou on July 23rd raises doubts about the party’s ability to carry it off in future.
The death toll from the crash was not extreme: 40, according to official accounts, with 191 injured—less than previous railway accidents on conventional lines, and a drop of blood compared with the Sichuan earthquake, in which 69,000 died. But this time is different for China’s leaders, for three reasons.
First, in the past the leaders in Beijing could portray themselves as the bulwark against malign local forces. After the Sichuan quake President Hu Jintao and the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, who likes to be known as “Grandpa Wen”, were the consolers-in-chief against a powerful natural world. And if local corruption was suspected to be behind the collapse of so many shoddy school buildings, how much worse it would be without those good men at the top.
This approach does not fly with the Wenzhou crash. The leaders have pinned their own and the country’s prestige to high-speed rail. From a standing start, China has built the world’s longest high-speed network—a genuine achievement, but one the leaders exaggerated. High-speed rail was a patriotic symbol and the next great export. Yet even before the crash, the network was plagued by breakdowns. Earlier this year the railways minister was sacked on suspicion of vast corruption. A darling programme is in trouble.
Second, the authorities have this time bungled the public relations. They first tried to blame the weather (lightning) before faulting the institute that designed the signalling. Rescuers rushed to bury part of the wreckage, either in haste to get the service going again before all the survivors had been accounted for, or because they wished to hide technology (either Chinese, or some lifted from foreign companies). Corpses were not at first handed over to families. And Grandpa Wen took days to pay his respects to victims. He had been sick, he said, which raised more questions than it answered (see article).
Third, in their unprecedented anger over the crash and its handling, ordinary Chinese and the state media have, amazingly, suddenly found common cause against the government. China has nearly 500m internet users. On Twitter-like microblogging sites, criticisms spread so quickly that censors could not keep up. Even the state-controlled media sharply questioned official explanations for the crash and criticised the government’s response to the accident. On July 29th, when the openness threatened to get out of hand, the censors ordered an end to it, but even then some state publications defied orders. Mao Zedong said that a single spark could start a prairie fire. The capacity of both journalists and the public to speak up in huge numbers has breached a firebreak not crossed since the Tiananmen protests in the pre-internet age.
Autocracy hits the buffers
China’s rulers love to point out the shortcomings of Western-style democracies; the “Beijing model” by contrast gets difficult jobs done. That view is often echoed by Western businesspeople. Yet breakneck economic development has cut corners, distorted priorities and created big conflicts of interest. The railways ministry is manufacturer, operator and regulator of the network. Now ordinary Chinese folk are questioning their country’s less-than-triple-A politics. A hurtling train is a metaphor for runaway development that is generating its share of collapsing buildings, lethal coal mines and bulldozed neighbourhoods. By contrast, Japan’s bullet train has had just one fatality in 47 years, a passenger caught in a door.
China’s technocrats managed to fix its once faulty airlines. But the issue at Wenzhou is not really the rushed engineering. Rather it is the growing need, in an increasingly complex country, for scrutiny, accountability and public debate. It has, in other words, shown the limits of dictatorship. Some of China’s rulers probably know that—but, to judge by the news crackdown now under way, clearly not enough of them.