A knowledge economy operating at the frontiers of technology is incompatible with a one-party state.
‘If nobody can be safe, do we want this speed? Can we live in apartments that do not fall down? Can the roads we drive on in our cities not collapse? Can we travel in safe trains? And if there is a major accident can we not be in a hurry to bury the trains? Can we afford the people a basic sense of security?”
When a news anchor on China‘s state TV feels he can say that on a broadcaster which has become the world gold standard for censorship and propaganda, you know that something profound is afoot. But it is not just the crash last weekend outside Wenzhou, involving two high speed trains that cost 39 lives and some 190 injured, that has appalled the country. It has been the Communist party’s attempt once again to try to close down the whole affair that has aroused passionate protest.
The official directive from the propaganda bureau was that journalists should not “investigate the causes of the accident” or “question” the official account – that it was caused by lightning. Wreckage was buried to avoid any inspection; compensation claims were initially refused. After all, the party’s legitimacy depends on its capacity to deliver growth, jobs and modernity and the high-speed train network is one of the linchpins on which its claims depend. It was crucial that the crash did not challenge any of this carefully constructed story.
The directive was ignored. For what Qiu Qiming said on CCTV has been said with more fury on the country’s blogs, social networking sites and its two major Twitter-like microblogs, the “weibos”. The tweets began from the crashed train itself, complaining about the chaos, and then spread. “Interest groups and local authorities have placed their desires above society,” tweeted Zhao Chu. “If this continues, there is only one result – rampant terror and blood on the streets.”
Another tweeted: “The whole railway ministry should be closed down. It is a nest of corruption.” In a blog, Zou Yonhua wrote: “How could anyone who is mentally normal believe that China’s rubbish scientific development and research on high-speed rail is Number One in the world? No ordinary people believe that. It is a pity that the party itself swallows the line.”
This is just a tiny sample of the avalanche of such comment – 26 million posts and rising fast – since last Saturday’s disaster. It is jaw-dropping stuff. Although generally the writers are careful to stop short of criticising the party outright – everyone knows about the imprisonments of the Nobel peace prize winner Liu Xiaobo and the human rights activist Ai Weiwei – anyone who goes this far is taking enormous risks with their career and their freedom. But when the People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece, declares that China can no longer generate “blood-smeared” GDP, a rubicon has been crossed.
Every party faction knows that the party got its first reaction wrong and belatedly knows that its legitimacy now depends on presenting itself as being on the people’s side as fast as it can. Suddenly, compensation claims are being accepted, and generously paid. To crack down on commentary would be to compound the error, so the blogs and weibos have seized the opening, even though their authors know the risks. They have even dared to mock Premier “Grandpa” Wen Jiabao as China’s best actor for claiming that he could not go as quickly to the rail crash site as he did to the earthquake disaster in 2008 because he was ill. There are pictures of him welcoming a Japanese trade delegation in apparent rude good health 24 hours after the news of the crash broke. The internet is proving an instrument that not even the authoritarian Chinese can control.
China, as I once was memorably told by a group of lawyers in Beijing, is a volcano waiting to explode. It is difficult for those not familiar with the country to comprehend the scale of corruption, the waste of capital, the sheer inefficiency, the ubiquity of the party and the obeisance to hierarchy that is today’s China. The mass of Chinese are proud and pleased with what has been achieved since Deng Xiaoping began the era of the “socialist market economy”. But there is a widespread and growing recognition that the authoritarian model has to change, a fact that every disaster dramatises.
The railway ministry is a classic example. It is a state within a state, making its own rules and with its own well-honed, corrupt hierarchy commanding unquestioning obedience. Charged with building 9,000 miles of high-speed rail by 2020, as well as developing an allegedly indigenous high-speed rail capability better than Japan’s or Europe’s, it has pulled all the familiar levers to achieve its task. Huge loans from state-owned banks, directed to lend to the ministry in effect for free, have been thrown at the project. Technology has been purloined and stolen from abroad. Productivity, efficiency and safety are secondary to two overwhelming needs: to complete the network fast, so creating crucially needed jobs, and to be able to boast that China’s capability is cheaper than anybody else’s.
To win the lush contracts, officials’ palms have to be liberally greased. Rail minister Liu Zhijun, architect of the high-speed rail plan, was suspended pending a corruption investigation in February. Nor is there is any open system to see whether the technologies actually function properly. There is no back-up for any systems failures, because there is no structure of accountability or any penalties if there are mistakes. The only excuse has been that until now the system has delivered. But Japan’s bullet train has been operating for nearly 50 years without a single death. Now China has 39 on its hands with a system only four years old.
It also has 10,000 kms of high-speed rail already built whose economics depends on the trains being full. But nobody trusts the technology or the integrity of the officials running the system. The government promises a full inquiry, but nobody has any faith it will be anything else than a fix. China is discovering that a sophisticated knowledge economy operating at the frontiers of technology is incompatible with an authoritarian one-party state.
China, we are endlessly told by its apologists, is different. The values of the European Enlightenment – tolerance, the health of dissent, the rule of law, freedom of expression, pluralism – are not needed here. Wenzhou is one more bitter reminder; human pain and human instincts for accountability are universal. Moreover, they are the essential underpinnings of the good economy and society. There will be a Chinese Spring. And sooner than anyone expects.