China’s train crash
The angry response to the Wenzhou crash continues
Aug 6th 2011 | BEIJING | from the print edition
THE official death toll from the high-speed rail collision near the east-central city of Wenzhou on July 23rd now stands at 40, with 191 injured. Among the tens of millions in China who now share their thoughts on the nation’s microblogging outlets are many who suspect the toll is even higher. Whatever the true numbers, other casualties may be counted in the disaster and the nature of its clumsy handling afterwards. One of these is the credibility of the government.
七月二十三日，在中国东部城市温州附近发生的高铁追尾事故的官方死亡人数现在为40人，同时有191名伤者。 在中国数千万通过微博来分享自己的观点的网友中，他们大部分都怀疑死亡人数甚至更多。不论真实人数是多少，其他的损失可能会算入这次事故中，以及事故发生后地处理不当。 其中一点就是政府的公信力。
Days after the crash, many continue to gripe openly about the government’s response, and to doubt anything officials say. Complaints focus not only on whatever neglect caused the accident—officials say it was a signalling flaw—but also on the government’s callousness in trying to clean up the site. It buried one of the stricken rail carriages and restored rail services, all before rescue operations had ended.
In a belated attempt at damage control, the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, visited the site five days after the accident. He is known as “Grandpa Wen” for his benevolent demeanour and his role in visiting scenes of disaster and discomfort. But this time his late appearance raised eyebrows. He said he had wanted to come sooner, but had been on his sick-bed for 11 days—Chinese leaders’ health problems are almost never disclosed. The mystery deepened when it turned out that Mr Wen had met delegations in Beijing while he was supposedly laid up.
There was speculation that Mr Wen’s absence might point to high-level disagreement over how to handle the matter. Mr Wen is thought to champion greater political openness than his senior colleagues would like. If discord at the top existed, it would have a bearing on the process by which the Communist Party is now choosing leaders due to take over the country’s running next year. But everything is unknowable at the Communist heart of the world’s most populous country.
Mr Wen’s comments on the accident itself were no less intriguing. In another rare departure from common practice, he took an open slap at the Ministry of Railways, conceding that “the public had many suspicions about the cause of the accident and the way it was handled”. He promised to investigate whether corruption, equipment or management problems were to blame, with no “soft-pedalling”.
State media, already surprisingly vocal about the crash, took this as licence to ignore earlier orders to refrain from reporting controversy. Xinhua, the official news agency, began reporting on widespread suspicions about the reasons for the crash, as did the central state-television station. Some state media proved yet more defiant: the Economic Observer published an astonishing open letter to a rescued two-year-old girl, orphaned by the crash, laying bare concerns about systemic corruption and hypocrisy. Microblogging sites, notably Sina Weibo, China’s homespun version of the banned Twitter, ran unusually free comment. Reining it in would have been hard or counterproductive. Microblogs also provided an avenue for Chinese journalists to publish details on the accident in the crucial early hours, before slower-footed propaganda authorities could issue “guidance”.
国家媒体认为这是允许其不顾之前禁止报道负面消息的命令的许可，而且他们已经难得的报道了这次追尾事故。官方新闻机构新华社以大众对事故原因的质疑报道开始，就像中央电视台报道一样。一些国有媒体甚至更加大胆: 经济观察报 发表了一份写给获救的12岁女孩的令人惊奇的信直接的指出对制度腐败和虚伪的担心，这个女孩由于这次事故成为孤儿。在中国有影响力的中国版推特新浪微博则不同寻常地让人们自由评论。监控微博会是很棘手的，甚至带来相反的效果。微博也能在反映通常慢一步的宣传部的官员提出“规定”前，提供一个渠道来让记者在第一时间报道事故细节。
The anger expressed there and elsewhere poses a problem for the authorities. Other disasters have spawned scandals and earned public scorn, as after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, in which many children died because of shoddy school construction. But that disaster was a natural one, and the government’s response was in many respects effective. After the ethnic clashes that rocked Tibet and Xinjiang in recent years, officials were able to deflect blame on to minority agitators and outside provocateurs. This time they have no such recourse.
The irrepressible nature of the internet is more troubling for them in the long run, even though having an outlet for people to let off steam can do the regime a service. The leaders may regret the haste with which they built the high-speed rail network. But they may come to regret more the haste with which they fostered that other high-speed network, Sina Weibo.