Deadly Rail Crash Unleashes Public Anger Toward the Chinese Government

The accident in Wenzhou that killed 40 people has pushed criticism of Beijing across the Web and even onto state-run television

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A week since the fatal high-speed rail accident in Wenzhou, and there's little more I can add to the voluminous reportage and reactions that have circulated (see here and here). The outpouring on the Chinese blogosphere and Sina Weibo, the Chinese Twitter, has been tremendous and virtually instantaneous. And perhaps most surprising to me was how unreservedly the liberal Chinese press engaged the story, reporting powerful accounts from victims and their families, and holding the government directly accountable. And it wasn't just the unofficial press, even CCTV was unleashing some ostensible anger. A monologue from CCTV anchor, Qiu Qiming, caught the public's attention (translated from Chinese):

"If nobody can be safe, do we still want this speed? Can we drink a glass of milk that's safe? Can we stay in an apartment that will not fall? Can the roads we travel on in our cities not collapse? Can we travel in safe trains? And if and when a major accident does happen, can we not be in a hurry to bury the trains? Can we afford the people a basic sense of security? China, please slow down. If you're too fast, you may leave the souls of your people behind."

It seemed remarkable, at least for a few days.

Now the state has decided that enough venting has been had and enough "flowers have bloomed". Thus the "7.23 incident"--as it is dubbed in China--has quietly fallen off the front pages, buried elsewhere below the fold (or no longer in prominent spots on websites). Much uncertainty continues to surround just exactly what happened and the fate of the rail project. Questions remain over whether this episode will force the Ministry of Railways to transform itself from a stodgy, opaque bureaucracy to one that is more professional and capable of managing a massive system.

Despite the fact that I continue to believe that an HSR network makes rational sense in the context of China's economic development and urbanization ambitions, the execution of it has been far from competent. I have written on the corruption and possible pitfalls that could bedevil the network. And ultimately, I believe this episode will turn out to be much less about China's technological proficiency but rather the result of a combination of the pervasive "good enough" (差多) mentality in implementation and a government's inability to fully manage a project that took on a life of its own.

But instead of adding weight to the growing body of reflections, I thought I would highlight some of the greatest hits that have so far emerged from this tragedy, in my view. Some are in-your-face defiance and some are more subtly subversive. Take, for example, this eminently homemade T-shirt-ready logo (courtesy of ChinaSmack):
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A bold political message with the aid of Photoshop--a public "F you" to the railway ministry. I'd file this under the first category of "in your face" irreverence.

In the "subversive" category, I present you this video* that creates a montage of the rail accident and its aftermath to the soundtrack of that infamous '80s Chinese rock anthem "Nothing to My Name (一所有)". Oh yes they did, they brought back the godfather of Chinese rock Cui Jian:

For those unfamiliar with Cui Jian, he rose to prominence in the tumultuous late '80s with that hit rock single. It seemed to have captured the zeitgeist better than anything else, as Chinese youth grappled with the sense of waywardness during the first decade of discombobulating economic reforms. Cui's ballad was then coopted by students during that memorable summer of 1989 in that famous Beijing square. 

I don't want to draw breathless, and in all likelihood unfounded, parallels to that summer of discontent. But is it just pure nostalgia for Cui Jian and the '80s? Or is this a subtle message that prompted the hasty removal of the original video on Tudou? 

Yet it resurfaced on YouTube and elsewhere as swiftly as it was removed. To me, that was the essence of this disaster. It was a demonstration of the power of individual agency, amplified by new technology and media, that momentarily knocked the state off balance. The hundreds of thousands individuals who tweeted and commented weren't seeking to overthrow the government or foment revolution. They simply wanted honest answers and accountability from a government that they were asked to trust deeply.

If the government continues to refuse to deliver the kind of good governance and transparency demanded of it, then merely delivering economic growth will no longer suffice. 

*video posted courtesy of Ministry of Tofu.