In the wake of a deadly train collision in China that claimed at least 39 lives, a single photograph has for many Chinese become emblematic of a callous, unresponsive political culture that prioritizes instant results over public well-being and accountability.
The news photograph shows a high-speed train zipping along a viaduct in Wenzhou, the site of the accident last Saturday, less than a day after rescue work was halted, some say far too soon. The wreckage of the crash is piled carelessly on the barren ground below, a tragedy swept rashly into the past.
From the outset, China’s government did its utmost to keep public doubts from gathering speed. The Central Propaganda Department instructed media across the country to avoid hard questions and focus instead on “stories that are extremely moving, like people donating blood and taxi drivers refusing to accept fares.” The overarching theme, it said, should be “great love in the face of great tragedy.”
Meanwhile, China’s rail ministry cited lightning as the cause of the accident, sidestepping questions of human error and institutional failure. When journalists asked pointedly how a young girl had been found alive after officials called an end to the rescue effort, the ministry again favored emotion over candor, calling the discovery a “miracle.”
Over the last several days, however, Chinese have insistently pushed the Wenzhou tragedy front and center, refusing to accept the government’s rationalizations and distractions. Using Twitter-like platforms on an unprecedented scale, people have clamored for answers to a hornet’s nest of questions.
How was the accident caused by lightning? Why was the train behind not aware there was a train in front? Why was the rescue effort halted so soon? Why was the wreckage piled up into shallow pits before there had been a proper investigation into the accident’s cause? Why has a list of victims not been made public?
Magazines and newspapers have followed suit, reporting boldly on the facts and pressing for answers.
At the very heart of all of these questions — and indeed of the tragedy itself — is a government that refuses to be held accountable for its decisions, and that admits no criticism when criticism might make the difference between bold vision and monstrous folly.
Questions about the rapid development of China’s high-speed rail network have simmered under the surface for years but were never given a proper hearing. Led by the former railway minister Liu Zhijun, who was jailed for corruption in February, a handful of government officials were entrusted with vast resources while being exempted from public scrutiny. (The general budget estimate for the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railroad alone surpasses the entire budget for the Three Gorges Dam Project.) China’s railroads were Liu’s private fiefdom, and he was rewarded politically for pushing ahead with big plans through unilateral decision-making, earning the nickname “Great Leap Liu.”
Dominating resources of both power and money, Liu monopolized the debate among would-be experts. Dissenting voices, like that of Zhao Jian, a professor at the Economy Management Institute of Beijing Transportation University, were elbowed aside. In an interview published on the eve of the Wenzhou tragedy, Zhao told a magazine in southern China that his university president had discouraged him from criticizing high-speed rail development because it might hinder the school’s ability to secure research grants.
Until this month, Chinese media were almost entirely complicit, trumpeting high-speed rail as a glorious enterprise reflecting the prestige of the Chinese Communist Party. No matter that the cost of tickets placed it out of reach for the vast majority of Chinese.
Last December, the party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper ran a front-page story valorizing an ordinary train driver who had been given a “dead order” from superiors back in 2008 to master a new high-speed train in just 10 days, against the judgment of a German trainer who said trainees needed at least two months. With all the high foolishness of state propaganda, the article relished the fact that the odds were stacked against the trainees and the fact that there was “no room for error.”
The “great leap” culture that Liu Zhijun epitomized is the way things operate across China, from county towns bursting with development all the way up to the top. Party and government officials are accountable only to superiors with whom they hope to score expedient political points. The legitimate concerns of citizens are routinely ignored.
Chinese people have pleaded with their leaders to slow down and prioritize the quality of development. “China, please slow your soaring steps forward,” one social media user wrote. “Wait for your people … wait for your conscience! We don’t want derailed trains, or collapsing bridges, or roads that slide into pits. We don’t want our homes to become death traps. Move more slowly. Let every life have freedom and dignity.”
China’s leaders must recognize that the political culture of expediency and secrecy is the root cause of this and other tragedies, from food and mine safety to violent property demolition. Political reform is needed to empower Chinese citizens to monitor the government and eliminate corruption and mismanagement. Reform is the only way to enable real and sustained accountability.
In the face of mounting public anger, the government is now dealing more seriously with the crisis. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has visited the crash site, pledging to hold those responsible to account, and the government has ordered an “urgent overhaul” of the national railway system. But this urgency must not, yet again, become mere expediency, another high-speed solution to a crisis of public opinion.
David Bandurski, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project.