By JASON DEAN And JEREMY PAGE
Chinese have always lived by the saying “the sky is high, and the emperor is far away,” even when the emperor was a Communist Party official hidden behind a crimson-walled compound in Beijing. The meaning is obvious enough: that the realities of provincial life are distant from the exercise of power in the Chinese capital.
The deadly high-speed rail crash in China sparked national outrage and questions about the rapidly growing economy. WSJ China Editor Andrew Browne talks about the incident and fallout with Kelsey Hubbard.
But this week the contemporary rulers discovered that the provinces have never been closer, not only to Beijing but to each other. Rarely before have Chinese felt so connected, so e-empowered as they have in the outpouring of grief and outrage over a tragedy on a high-speed railway line that was meant to be a symbol of modernity and centralized power but has instead become an emblem of political vulnerability. The point was apparent to all when one of those far-away emperors, Premier Wen Jiabao, was forced to pay homage in the provinces at the scene of the accident.
Many Chinese recognized that this was not just a train wreck but a collision between China’s past and future, between its ambitions and limitations, and between the necessity of rapid economic growth and the inability of a political system to change.
And like any major event in this country of endless over-interpretation, there has been a chain reaction, in Beijing and beyond, whose consequences defy the divination of even the most astute China watcher. As a train carriage dangled perilously over the edge of a damaged track, the fate of passengers, of politicians, of policies, of visions and of vanities hung in the balance.
Deadly Train Crash in China
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Workers at the site of China’s high-speed train crash near Wenzhou, during clean-up operations on July 24.
The past week might be compared to similar events at the start of the 20th century, when China’s weak and corrupt imperial court made a belated bid to transform the country into a modern, industrialized power. Its key gambit was to create a national rail network, using foreign loans.
Beijing’s attempt to nationalize the few local railways was met, however, with angry resistance. Investors in the merchant class erupted into riots, and the newly emerging modern Chinese press helped to spur the violence. The upheaval contributed to the downfall of the Qing dynasty, a century ago.
The current crisis over China’s high-speed rail network shows no sign of directly threatening the current regime. But it has provoked an online media storm, driven by China’s new middle class, and highlighted the weaknesses of China’s current leadership, whose rampant corruption and reflexive secrecy could undermine its rule in the long term.
Not unlike a century ago, faith in the central government is eroding rapidly—a deeply troubling parallel for the country’s ruling Communists. Party leaders are anxious to avoid the fate of Chinese emperors who were traditionally deemed to have lost the “mandate of heaven”—the divine right to rule—in times of national crisis.
China’s high-speed rail system is an apt metaphor for the country’s hurtling economy over the past decade: a colossal investment project, born of the state, steeped in corruption, built for maximum velocity, and imposed paternalistically on a public that is at once amazed and skeptical. The rail system has married foreign technology with national ambition in a network billed as the biggest and most advanced in the world, in a country whose per capita income ranks below that of Jamaica.
“Do not be desirous to have things done quickly,” said Confucius, China’s most famous philosopher, some 25 centuries ago. “Desire to have things done quickly prevents their being done thoroughly.” China’s leadership is now suffering the consequences of ignoring this traditional wisdom.
The train crash a week ago in eastern China sent several carriages plummeting off a viaduct, killing 40 people and injuring more than 190. It has transformed a symbol of Beijing’s pride into an emblem of incompetence and imperious governance.
The accident, and the government’s bungled handling of the aftermath, has triggered national outrage, much of which has been expressed on Internet microblogging sites watched anxiously by Communist cadres.
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Each attempt by officials to contain the opprobrium has seemed to prompt fresh disdain. The day after the crash, outside the city of Wenzhou, questions circulated about why, in images from the site, construction machinery was seen pushing wrecked rail cars into pits. When a spokesman for the Railways Ministry held a press conference Sunday and explained that they were helping to make way for rescue equipment, his answer was widely ridiculed. Were they burying evidence that might point to corners being cut?
When Premier Wen Jiabao—famous for flying to disaster scenes to commiserate with victims—visited four days later, a reporter from China Central Television, the government’s primary propaganda outlet, asked pointedly why the site where he was speaking had been scrubbed of all traces of the accident. After railway officials on Thursday blamed the crash on “serious design flaws” in railway signaling equipment, the official Xinhua news agency carried an English-language article headlined “Train crash explanation raises more public doubts.”
In its latest attempt to quell the crisis, the government on Friday agreed to almost double compensation for the family of each victim to 915,000 yuan ($140,000).
The torrent of outrage seems to be leading toward a watershed. Serious questions are being asked not only about the causes of the pile-up and the flaws in the response to it but about whether the whole disaster was produced by a style of governance that recklessly pursues rapid economic growth above all else.
The tragedy has highlighted a paradox at the heart of Communist Party rule. To survive, the Party needs high-speed growth that creates jobs and keeps social tensions in check. But rapid growth has spawned regime-threatening risks—deadly accidents, many of them preventable, and an upsurge of scandals in areas like food safety and illegal land seizures. As critics have stressed, a modern economy demands transparency and accountability.
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Relatives of the victims of the train crash, speaking to reporters on July 27.
Though the public fury has been mostly online, it has also spilled into the mainstream media. “The speed of China’s development at the moment is like a high-speed train—it’s the envy of the whole world—but while satisfying our need for speed, we might be forsaking many things,” said Qiu Qiming, a popular anchor on the state broadcaster’s CCTV 13 channel, in an extraordinary on-air plea after the accident. “Can we drink a glass of milk without worrying? Can we live in a house that won’t collapse? Can we drive along a street in a big city without it caving in? Can we ride a train that arrives safely? And if there’s a big train accident, can we be sure that the engine won’t be buried? In short, can we have a basic sense of security necessary for people’s happiness?”
The train scandal has arrived at a particularly inauspicious moment for party bosses, ahead of a once-a-decade leadership change next year, when seven of the nine members of the Party’s Politburo Standing Committee—its top decision-making body—are due to retire. It has the potential to complicate the already intricate political process of determining who will fill their spots on the roster.
Xi Jinping, the heir apparent to President and party chief Hu Jintao, has so far avoided public discussion of the train crash, perhaps in an attempt to insulate himself from the damage. But he will be under pressure to oversee efforts to address the governance issues that have been exposed once he takes the party’s top post next year.
The public relations disaster for the party has been compounded by the name of the railway line, “Hexie”—Chinese for “harmony”—which is clearly visible in many images of the wreckage. One of the party’s stated goals under Mr. Hu has been to create a “harmonious society.” Even before the rail crash, the term was widely ridiculed, used as slang for political suppression. In the wake of Saturday’s wreck, some Internet users have been calling the train line “hexue,” meaning “drink blood.”
A decade or so ago, it would have been impossible for Chinese to react the way they have the past week. Traditional media were tightly controlled by the state, and the Internet was in its infancy—China had less than 10 million Internet users at the start of 2000.
Today, some 485 million Chinese are estimated to use the Internet, and within that group there is a growing and increasingly vocal minority. Weibo, the Chinese Twitter-like service started two years ago by Sina Corp., by itself boasts more than 140 million users—more than a tenth of China’s population. Weibo and sites like it have become like a national nervous system, transmitting pulses of opinion and news almost instantly to networks of friends and “followers.” Its most avid users are young people and members of the urban elite—those the party has worked hardest to coopt in recent decades.
The government censors much content on the Internet, but it has allowed a surprising degree of openness on Weibo and other sites. In part, experts say, that’s because it sees online commentary as a release valve for the public, but the government also fears the fury that would erupt if it took away those outlets.
The new technology has fundamentally changed the relationship between China’s government and the governed. The extensive controls on information in the pre-Web days meant that most Chinese were aware of corruption only among local officials, who were convenient scapegoats for national leaders. Now Internet users are aware that issues like food safety problems, land-use abuses and corruption are pervasive.
In a blistering essay titled “The Derailed Country,” posted online this past week and then quickly removed by censors, Han Han, one of China’s most popular bloggers, mocked the leadership for what he characterized as a heartless approach to development. “They think: ‘We built this. We built that. You don’t need to care what happens along the way, or who gets the benefits, as long as you get to use it,'” Mr. Han wrote. “Why aren’t you grateful? Why all the questions?”
The high-speed rail system was an object of some derision even before Saturday’s accident. China began building the system in earnest less than a decade ago, using imported technology, but its companies have integrated that technology into what they say are their own designs and have been trying to sell Chinese-made high-speed rail equipment overseas. The network is already the world’s largest and is planned to stretch some 16,000 kilometers (about 10,000 miles) when it is completed in 2020, at an estimated total cost of more than $300 billion.
Chinese officials have hyped high-speed rail with abandon. Mr. Wen was among the inaugural riders on the system’s most prized line, connecting the political capital of Beijing to the commercial capital of Shanghai, when it opened several weeks ago, timed for the Communist Party’s 90th anniversary. Earlier this month, the spokesman for the Railways Ministry bragged that its technology was so superior to Japan’s famous Shinkansen that they “cannot be mentioned in the same breath.”
But the project has been beset by problems. Many people have complained that tickets are too costly. Activity on two lines was halted for environmental reasons. And service on the Beijing-Shanghai line has been suspended repeatedly since it started because of technological glitches caused by bad weather and other issues.
Most significantly, the high-speed rail project—and China’s railway system more broadly—appears to have been riddled with corruption. Liu Zhijun, railways minister since 2003 and high-speed rail’s chief champion, was suddenly sacked in February on allegations of “severe violation of discipline”—party jargon for graft. A month later, the government sacked the Railways Ministry’s second-ranking engineer, Zhang Shuguang—who had also been a prominent advocate of high-speed rail—on the same charges.
It’s unclear what role, if any, graft played in Saturday’s accident, which occurred when one high-speed train rear-ended another that the government has said was crippled by lightning.
Whatever the details, the accident is already seen—even by officials—as an indictment of breakneck growth. “China wants development, but it doesn’t want blood-smeared GDP” said a front-page commentary Thursday in the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official mouthpiece. Development “should not come at a reckless price, nor be practiced by a handful of people as if it overrides everything,” it said.
Mr. Wen and other Chinese leaders have talked for years about the need to emphasize the quality of growth rather than simply its speed. They have stressed the importance of narrowing a widening wealth gap and curbing widespread environmental degradation. Yet even as they have made those calls, the government has poured money into massive public works projects—often built on land taken from farmers by force or with insufficient compensation.
This approach has pointed up the difficulties for the leadership in adjusting its growth policies when it also needs to continue generating enough jobs to placate a massive, increasingly urbanized population. China’s gross domestic product grew 10.3% last year and is expected to grow at least 9% this year—far above the largely symbolic target of 7% annually that Mr. Wen set for the 2011-to-2015 period in a speech to China’s legislature in March.
Ken Jarrett, a former U.S. diplomat in China who is now chairman for greater China at consultants APCO Worldwide, said that there appears to be an effort on the part of China’s economic leadership to use Saturday’s deadly accident to call attention to their efforts to adjust China’s growth model. The accident could give Mr. Wen’s government “new momentum to try to fight off local officials who are not eager to move in that direction…and enforce their policy more successfully,” he said.
Still, it’s unclear whether such efforts will be adequate to soothe public anger or effect real change. The train disaster has fed what was already intensifying cynicism and despair among many Chinese about corruption and regulatory problems that have triggered a series of scandals in the past several years, from poisoned baby formula to bridge collapses to embezzlement and other abuses of power by officials and their families.
“When a country is corrupt to the point that a single lightning strike can cause a train crash, the passing of a truck can collapse a bridge, and drinking a few bags of milk powder can cause kidney stones, none of us are exempted,” wrote one Chinese Internet user after Saturday’s accident. “China today is a train traveling through a lightning storm. None of us are spectators; all of us are passengers.”