Thu, Aug 04, 2011 - Page 9 News List

There will be a Chinese Spring, and sooner than anyone expects

China risks implosion because a knowledge economy operating at the frontiers of modern technology is incompatible with a one-party state

By Will Hutton  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Mountain People

“If nobody can be safe, do we want this speed? Can we live in apartments that do not fall down? Can the roads we drive on in our cities not collapse? Can we travel in safe trains, and if there is a major accident, can we not be in a hurry to bury the trains? Can we afford the people a basic sense of security?”

When a news anchor on China’s state TV feels he can say that on a broadcaster which has become the world gold standard for censorship and propaganda, you know that something profound is afoot, but it is not just the crash last weekend outside Wenzhou, involving two high-speed trains that cost 39 lives and injured 190, that has appalled the country. It has been the Chinese Communist Party’s attempt once again to try to close down the whole affair that has aroused passionate protest.

The official directive from the propaganda bureau was that journalists should not “investigate the causes of the accident” or “question” the official account — that it was caused by lightning. Wreckage was buried to avoid any inspection and compensation claims were initially refused. After all, the party’s legitimacy depends on its capacity to deliver growth, jobs and modernity, and the high-speed train network is one of the linchpins on which its claims depend. It was crucial that the crash did not challenge any of this carefully constructed story.

The directive was ignored. For what Qiu Qiming (邱啟明) said on CCTV has been said with more fury on the country’s blogs, social networking Web sites and its two major weibo, or Twitter-like microblogs. The tweets began from the crashed train itself, complaining about the chaos and then spread.

“Interest groups and local authorities have placed their desires above society,” Zhao Chu tweeted. “If this continues, there is only one result — rampant terror and blood on the streets.”

“The whole railway ministry should be closed down. It is a nest of corruption,” another tweeted.

In a blog, Zou Yonhua wrote: “How could anyone who is mentally normal believe that China’s rubbish scientific development and research on high-speed rail is No. 1 in the world? No ordinary people believe that. It is a pity that the party itself swallows the line.”

This is just a tiny sample of the avalanche of such comment — 26 million posts and rising fast — since the disaster on July 23. It is jaw-dropping stuff. Although generally the writers are careful to stop short of criticizing the Chinese Communist Party outright — everyone knows about the imprisonments of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) and human rights activist Ai Weiwei (艾未未) — anyone who goes this far is taking enormous risks with their career and their freedom, but when the People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece, declares that China can no longer generate “blood-smeared” GDP, a Rubicon has been crossed.

Every party faction knows that the party got its first reaction wrong and belatedly knows that its legitimacy now depends on presenting itself as being on the people’s side as fast as it can. Suddenly, compensation claims are being accepted and generously paid. To crack down on commentary would be to compound the error, so the blogs and weibo have seized the opening, even though their authors know the risks.

They have even dared to mock Chinese Premier Wen “Grandpa” Jiabao (溫家寶) as China’s best actor for claiming that he could not go as quickly to the rail crash site as he did to the earthquake disaster in 2008 because he was ill. There are pictures of him welcoming a Japanese trade delegation in apparent rude good health 24 hours after the news of the crash broke. The Internet is proving an instrument that not even the authoritarian Chinese can control.

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