The current issue of The New Yorker features a lengthy look at China’s Wenzhou train disaster of last July, calling it “the disaster that exposed the underside of the boom.” Author Evan Osnos examines both the minutiae of the crash, which officially left 40 dead and 192 injured, along with the societal context: “Scandal, of one kind or another, has become the backbeat to China’s rise.” This incident, more so than many others, has been the tipping point for China’s citizens and the global community to tsk-tsk out loud about the quantity of eggs being broken for the country’s amazing growth spurt.
China’s officialdom isn’t exactly joining in—specific mention of the incident is close to forbidden for the nation’s own media. But the bureaucracy is keenly aware that speed kills, Osnos’s piece suggests. He ties in both the fall of railroad minister Liu Zhijun, nicknamed “Great Leap Liu,” and the coincident toppling of wunderkind Bo Xilai, whose own crash was just as eagerly observed—if better reported—as that of bullet train D301.
Neatly tying these threads together right after the crash, news anchor Qiu Qiming asked on the air:
If nobody can be safe, do we still want this speed? Can we drink a glass of milk that's safe? Can we stay in an apartment that will not fall? Can the roads we travel on in our cities not collapse? Can we travel in safe trains? And if and when a major accident does happen, can we not be in a hurry to bury the trains? Can we afford the people a basic sense of security? China, please slow down. If you're too fast, you may leave the souls of your people behind.
The day after Qiu’s minor-key Walter Cronkite moment, freelance journalist Megan Shank and UC Irvine history prof Jeffrey Wasserstrom predicted for PSMag.com that this crash on the Harmony Express line was different. Their piece, “China’s High-Speed Crash Leads to Legitimacy Crisis,” presciently argued that on the heels of other social failures, China’s post-Tiananmen compact was wearing thin. “The government pledged to undertake strenuous efforts to provide more commercial comforts," they wrote, "and allow greater personal — if not political — freedoms in exchange for deference to its authority.”
Osnos makes the same point with the benefit of subsequent data points (although he also acknowledges the possibility of a more optimistic scenario that relies on benign dictatorship):
The other view holds that the compact between the people and their leaders is fraying, that the ruling class is scrambling to get what it can in the final years of frenzied growth, and that the Party will be no more capable of reforming itself from within than the Soviets were.
China, as a whole, hasn’t itself gone off the tracks since Wenzhou, even as its economic locomotive has slowed. As a nation, it seems most unlikely to derail. ("People have been prepared to write off China for the last 30 years," says Stephen King, the global chief economist at HSBC. "They've not been so good at explaining why it hasn't happened.") But the Communist Party faces a more uphill trip. Ask not for whom the signal clangs, it clangs for thee.