One of the less attractive habits of the press is the tendency to gloat over others’ misfortunes. The horrific wreck of two high-speed bullet trains in Wenzhou is no exception: It has already elicited a chorus of we-told-you-so’s from the foreign press and the analysts they quote. Is China Economic Review guilty of this weakness of the fourth estate? Readers can decide, but we certainly can’t say we told anyone so. While we did question the, shall we say, transparency of the rapid buildout, and whether high-speed rail would deliver the macroeconomic benefits Beijing touted as justifications for the expense, we did not predict that the Ministry of Railways would cut so many corners as to render the system dangerous. It seems clear now that it did, and people died because of it. Our sympathies go to the families of the victims; none go to the government.
For a while, Beijing seemed like it was getting savvier at working with the media. The response to the Sichuan earthquake was, at least initially, quite open, and the decision to allow reporters into Xinjiang during the ethnic riots there last year showed an unexpected degree of subtlety. But this train wreck has been just that. The cover-up was done so clumsily that it had hardly begun before it was exposed as such. Whatever the investigation reveals, onlookers are now unlikely to believe it. If one needed no more damning indictment of the utterly out-to-a-baijiu-lunch vibe that pervades this tragedy, consider that even as officials were literally attempting to bury one of the train carriages, other parts of the propaganda apparatus were thinking up ways to spin the disaster into a bravery-in-the-face-of-adversity drama. This is what they came up with: 大灾面前大爱 (“In the face of great disaster, great love”), thus spinning the incident as a natural disaster. “The train was hit by lightning. So was the train behind it! And all the warning systems and safety processes and managers with cellphones. All hit by lightning. Helluva thing.” Unfortunately, many of these explanations have already been trashed by the domestic press. The story has morphed into one about the government response, and the fallout looks to have a long half-life.
So much for train technology exports, and high-speed rail as a symbol of China’s ascent. The question yet to be answered is whether the incident will weaken or strengthen Beijing’s control. Much of the off-message commentary on the accident – including the leaked directive to media outlets instructing them to avoid investigating the cause of the accident – spread over Sina’s Weibo microblog service. Sina was supposed to be watching the sandbox, but either the Sina censors were asleep at the wheel (no tasteless pun intended) … or they abandoned their posts in disgust.