Chinese Rail Scandal: One Disaster Closer to Revolution?
by Kevin Sullivan | Georgetown University
More Than A Disaster
The deadly crash and derailing of the Chinese high-speed rail line near Whenzou has far more of an impact than that of a local disaster–it is sending shock waves across the entire nation. The July 24 collision killed nearly 40 people and injured over 200 when a signal failure allowed one train to rear-end another stalled train, sending train cars off the elevated line. Despite its attempts to wield state media and censor other media sources, the ruling Communist Party is still coming under unprecedented criticism for the clearly unnecessary accident and bureaucratic failure.
Public outrage over the crash is especially warranted after the amount of fanfare and pride that the government had placed in its high-speed rail project. The project was viewed as a “gift to the Chinese people” in celebration of the Party’s 90th anniversary and as a sign of China’s acceptance into the rank of modern global economic powers. Even more disturbingly, all the talk before the crash focused on the government’s effort to break rail records. Wang Yongping, spokesperson for the Ministry of Railway, had previously stated that the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway technologies were far superior to the Japanese high-speed railway, despite the fact that Japan’s rail system has never had a single casualty. It was this arrogance that set the government up for public anger.
Beyond the arrogant words, the rail construction itself was plagued by clear corruption, serving as a sign of a failed bureaucratic system. In March, China’s National Audit Office found seven major wrongdoings in the high-speed rail construction, including “unregulated bidding, illegal transfers and diverting construction funds, and using false, counterfeit or forged invoices that involved up to five billion yuan ($774 million).” Even worse, the Chinese government recognized the corruption inherent in the project by firing top rail officials earlier in the year–yet the move was still not enough. In fact, construction on the Beijing-Shanghai line was completed almost six months early and some other lines are roughly a year ahead of schedule.
Even after the disaster, the state attempted to play down the serious implications by reporting that the high-speed rail system carried an average of 179 trains a day and transported a total of 5.26 million passengers in July. According to the Wall Street Journal, those numbers would mean that the line ran at 107 percent capacity.
Close to the Chinese Revolution?
While small outbursts for reform have effected China’s one-party system in the past, the Communist Party has been on “high-alert” as revolutionary and democratic fervor sweep the Middle East and North Africa. The comparisons between a bloated, corrupt state system in Egypt and the autocratic failures and corruption in China are many. So when it became apparent that the fatal collision was due to hubris, corruption and unnecessary risks, the Chinese people responded with an unprecedented amount of open criticism and condemnation of the Chinese government.
China’s growing middle class took to the Internet, using the blogosphere and social media tools such as Twitter to reverberate dissent across the nation. Whereas Chinese officials were relatively successful in covering up the poisoning of nearly 300,000 children from tainted powdered milk during the Beijing Olympics, both state and private media sources resisted Chinese censorship. Reuter’s reported that “China’s state-run media, initially ordered only to write positive stories and not question the official account, had by mid-week begun to ignore those directives and turn their invective on the Ministry of Railways.” The speed with which information and anger were spread showed that the Chinese government could no longer censor dissent as its source, as it had done repeatedly in Tibet and other restless western provinces.
Most importantly, the public outburst demonstrates that economic growth alone cannot keep down clamors for reform, and possibly even democracy. The project seemed to be far out of touch with a majority of the Chinese people because the rail prices are so expensive. “The government is just abusing the money of the common people,” said one posting on an online forum, defying the state’s censorship. The high sentiments of demanding accountability and ending corruption are ones that the state cannot afford to ignore–but it may attempt to anyway.
What More Will It Take?
With fault lying firmly in the hands of the Chinese government, the local tragedy has ballooned into a national rallying point for greater accountability. While the Chinese Revolution may still be a while off, the recent blunder of China’s authoritarian hubris has certainly pushed the world’s most populous nation closer to the edge of revolution. More and more economists are warning about a slowdown in Chinese economic growth and a frighteningly large housing bubble–the same technological and social forces that are fueling the revolutions in Middle East and North Africa could some day blow down the Chinese “house of cards.”Kevin Sullivan is a NGJ 'News and Politics' Editor and a rising Junior at Georgetown University, where he is majoring in International Political Economy.