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[Editorial] Fast rail as a metaphor for authoritarian China

What began as a transport accident in the busy rail corridor of Zhejiang province is turning into a test of China’s authoritarian methods of preserving stability. Should the old template of information control prevail? Is it even possible? Mastery of online media by citizens is weakening notions of governance by diktat.

The Chinese Communist Party’s politburo is usually adept at riding out crises. But the July 23 smash, which resulted in multiple casualties and loss of confidence in bullet trains, has escalated into a public questioning of development policy and how it relates to issues of safety and disregard of the people’s views.

The cover- up of deficiencies in high-speed rail technology is only the headline subject in the anger expressed on the Internet and in traditional media. The layered skein of enquiry that extends to rapid growth, its impact on lives and the relationship between the people and government has been an eye opener. When People’s Daily, the party organ, laments in a commentary that fast growth for its own sake is akin to “blood-smeared GDP,” all sorts of posers emerge.

One question is whether mishandling of the accident and its ramifications have split the leadership. There is a disjunction between Premier Wen Jiabao’s belated visit to the crash site followed by a pledge of a full investigation, and the party’s orders that media coverage be shut down. (It has not been obeyed fully, which is unusual.)

Two related matters seem at play. Firstly, hushing up how a sophisticated rail system could fail after sustaining a lighting strike is a refrain of the “old China” habit of burying scandals and policy failures. The most notorious cover-up was of the 30-40 million famine deaths during the Great Leap Forward in 1958-62. More recent examples were the SARS epidemic which began in southern China and the baby milk poisoning scandal weeks before the start of the Beijing Olympics.

The more successful and powerful China becomes, the stronger would be the impulse to present only a positive face to the world. Related to all this is the development of technology, one of the Four Modernisations set down in the 1970s by Premier Zhou Enlai. The context to the present furor is that high-speed trains are seen as an export, a mark of an advanced economy.

There is not a chance that the party leadership will decelerate economic growth, even if the rail trauma questions state priorities. That would on balance be the right decision, as fulfilment of Zhou’s prescription begun by Deng Xiaoping is the only means of upgrading the economy and the people’s welfare. If only it could be demonstrated that frank admissions of mistakes need not impede progress.

Editorial, The Straits Times

(Asia News Network)
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