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China’s High-Speed Crash Leads to Legitimacy Crisis

• July 29, 2011 • 5:54 PM

China has had its share of high-profile failures (and successes) of late, but a recent high-speed rail crash has shaken the people’s confidence more than past mishaps.

As their peers elsewhere, young Chinese readers have devoured the Harry Potter series. They would doubtless flock to see the final film that debuted in dozens of other foreign markets July 13. But in China, the film’s release has been delayed — and not for the usual political reasons. Harry Potter, after all, features a story Chinese leaders should enjoy: a small band of committed followers triumphs over great odds (shades of the Long March and the road to the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic of China) and a time of chaos gives way to peace and prosperity (reminiscent of China’s Reform era rise to greatness after 100 years of foreign bullying and the ensuing traumas of the Cultural Revolution).

Instead of Harry and Hermione, President Hu and company have made sure that most screen space in China is set aside for one of their latest high-cost pet projects, Beginning of the Great Revival: The Founding of a Party, a star-studded epic commemorating the 90-year anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. The film has left audiences cold and full of complaints. For many, it feels like a throwback to more benighted times, of being forced to watch low-quality entertainment to prove one’s political loyalty.

This grumbling was nothing compared to the fury that erupted last weekend in regard to a very different high-cost vanity project — China’s much-vaunted, but trouble-plagued of late, high-speed trains.

On July 23, a high-speed train stalled on a viaduct outside the city of Wenzhou. Another high-speed train rear-ended it. Four carriages fell, and officially 39 people died and about 200 were injured. The Central Propaganda Department demanded the press accept official accounts without question. They advanced the theme “in the face of tragedy, there is great love.” Before the ruined trains had cooled, authorities began burying the wreckage.

Chinese Netizens apparently didn’t get the message about accepting the official line. Taking to Chinese microblogs, called weibos, they challenged the quick burial and other government decisions. On these Twitter-like sites, Chinese people have posted 26 million messages on the tragedy, according to The New York Times. And official discouragement or not, Chinese media has beefed up its questions.

Train crashes can happen anywhere, so what is significant about the July 23 crash?

In recent years, China has suffered a series of man-made calamities and natural disasters. Many have been exacerbated by human error. These have led to angry online discourse and sometimes even street protests that ultimately could have posed a serious threat to the government. So far, Beijing has navigated the tumult and emerged with little damage to its legitimacy. We believe this moment is different — and not just because it took Wen Jiabao, the leadership’s go-to guy in crisis situations (also known as “Grandpa Wen” for his bedside manners), several days longer than usual to reach the scene. This time a few compassionate words to families of victims, and the identification of a few suitable scapegoats, seem unlikely to suffice.

This could be the end of the confident era ushered in by the successful hosting of the Beijing Olympic Games; it could undo the post-Tiananmen social contract between the Chinese government and Chinese citizens that has allowed the political status quo to remain in place longer than expected.

Milk powder and dog food have never been the stuff of national pride. So when quality issues arose with those and other prosaic made-in-China products, national government officials managed to shrug them off. They fingered private industries, put away a handful of corrupt local officials and insisted that the root problem wasn’t the political system but the Chinese value system — a few bad characters sullying the reputation of a country on the rise.

The government didn’t entirely escape scrutiny, but Hu Jintao and company didn’t face the kind of media maelstrom that’s grown since the high-speed collision.

The government’s own build-up is partly to blame for this. They presented the high-speed trains — along with the Chinese space program, the organization of the biggest and baddest Olympics ever and a World Expo with the largest footprint in the history of bread-and-circus spectacles — as yet more evidence that China was a nation to be reckoned with. China still smarts from its humiliation at the hands of foreign powers; these projects have provided salve to wounded national pride. That the Chinese trains were seen as an improvement on the famous bullet trains of regional rival Japan only sweetened the success.

But now as the Internet buzzes with chatter expressing sorrow for the dead and outrage at the government for its alleged cover-up, that salve has dried up and new wounds fester. How can a country that claims it’s bound for greatness order reporters to desist investigating the biggest news story in the nation? The demand for greater transparency, which has simmered below the surface with each previous scandal, is beginning to boil.

Coming on the heels of other problems and missteps in recent years (reports of the children of leaders using their connections to keep themselves immune from punishment for misdeeds, widespread conviction that the reason so many children died during 2008’s Sichuan earthquake was because officials and developers had made dubious deals that led to shoddily-built schools, and so on), the fall-out from this disaster threatens to call into question the whole social contract that’s been in place since 1989. If a Hollywood hack pitched the story, they’d say it’s the Challenger disaster meets Watergate — a single event that calls into question not just machinery but an administration’s veracity and motivation.

The Tiananmen trade-off, while not this explicit, amounted to this: The government pledged to undertake strenuous efforts to provide more commercial comforts and allow greater personal — if not political — freedoms in exchange for deference to its authority. Although some were undeniably left behind in the positive changes government policies wrought, millions of Chinese lives improved — at least materially. It began with televisions and meat for dinner. Now it’s iPhones and Pizza Hut. The Olympics, with its motto of “Faster, Higher, Stronger,” was a peak moment for this, as venues were built in record speed, the gold medal count soared and a reinvigorated nation impressed the world.

Lately, though, the main thing that has seemed “higher” is the prices. The government’s strength has been called into question by its skittishness in the face of ghostly Internet calls for a Chinese counterpart to the Jasmine protests. And as for “faster,” well, this brings us back to the trains.

In the Western narrative, heroic leaders led by principles inspire people to agitate for transformative change. Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo have become international media darlings for their efforts to subvert the system. We, too, admire them, but wonder, however courageous they have shown themselves to be, if their actions have much resonance outside of a circle of elite intellectuals.

The real impetus for change in the end may not be about principles but about pragmatism — a desire for basic creature comforts, a modicum of privacy and government officials that will help, not harm, its citizens.

Chinese want to take their kids to see Harry Potter, not the latest propaganda picture. The rallying call may not be for a China that is more like any other country but one that has authorities ready to treat its citizens like grown-ups, giving them straight talk about problems when things go wrong, whether tainted milk power or train crashes.

In other words, the real threat to the Party is its own inability to live up to its promises to deliver harmony, safety and stability.

Megan Shank and Jeffrey Wasserstrom
Megan Shank is a freelance writer and Chinese translator living in New York City whose work has appeared in Bloomberg News, Newsweek, Ms. Magazine, Archaeology and The Daily Beast, among others. She wrote a chapter for the new anthology Chinese Characters (University of California Press, 2012), and formerly worked in Shanghai as an editor at the now defunct Chinese-language edition of Newsweek. Jeffrey Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, and the author, most recently, of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, published last year by Oxford University Press. His commentaries and reviews have appeared in a wide range of academic journals, as well as in general interest periodicals such as Time and Newsweek.

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