Beijing’s top-level ordering of an investigation into the weekend’s fatal high-speed train crash at Wenzhou hard on the heels of a railways ministry decision to implement a two-month safety review of the whole troubled system reeks of crisis management badly handled by a government on the back foot. The leadership has not faced such public criticism for its handling of a disaster since the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
Questions are being raised about Beijing’s competence to look after its people, which hits directly at the basis of the legitimacy of its monopoly rule. That is more serious for the Party than the shredding of national pride in the rapid development of a high-speed rail network, already tattered over recent months by the corruption and safety scandals surrounding it, or what looks like an immediate coverup by railway ministry officials by burying the evidence, pretty much to be expected.
The initial reaction of paying off the families of the victims in short order at 500,000 yuan ($77,600) and the sacking of three rail officials, even before rescue operations were complete, reflects an old-school attitude that government is about administration, silencing and punishment that is increasingly out of touch with the expectations of Chinese. So is the instruction to state media to focus on positive stories while the official investigation is carried out. Online discussion, by contrast, has been angry, and about transparency, the quality of economic growth and the value of prestige projects.
Adulterated food, melamine-tainted infant formula, chemical spills in rivers, the most dangerous coal mines in the world: the list of where China falls short in safety seems to grow daily, and the victims are its own. History shows that every industrializing society tends to have one disaster that triggers change in official attitudes to safety. The Wenzhou crash may or may not turn out to be that symbolic moment. But it is significant. High-speed trains are not mass transportation. They are used by the prosperous, urban, middle-class. Criticism by an educated, well-connected section of the population is of particular concern to the Party, as it is from there that any long-term challenge to its monopoly rule is likely to come. That is why the leadership is now scrambling to regain control.
Footnote: The crash has also inflicted a body blow to China’s hopes to export its high-speed trains and the rails on which to run them. It confirms its critics worse fears of inferior equipment and shoddy construction that no amount of low cost can offset. Japan and South Korea are the likely beneficiaries, a further prick to national pride.