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Thursday, 4 August 2011

Fast rail as a metaphor for 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.)



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