China s decision to suspend all new high-speed railway projects, pending further checks on the safety of its much-vaunted high-speed railway network, is yet another indication of how deeply the Wenzhou rail disaster has spooked the powers-that-be in Beijing.
The government in China may be autocratic, but that doesn t mean it isn t keen to be seen to respond to public outrage, particularly when it feels the noose of hostile public opinion, which has veered towards lynch-mob mentality of late, tightening around its neck. Even the trusted party mouthpiece, People s Daily, warned after the accident about the risk of Bloody GDP putting economic gain above people s lives. (And as the railway corruption scandals have shown, China s major investment projects tend to bring economic benefits to party officials more quickly than anything else.)
As a result of the outcry following the accident, trains are to be run slower, timetables are to be changed to put a greater gap between trains, and a more independent investigation team is to be set up to look into the causes that (after the burying of the wreckage) many believe were initially covered up.
Such measures, though belated, are to be applauded, but they cannot paper over the reality of rock-bottom public distrust in China s railways, which were already under scrutiny before the Wenzhou disaster after several break-downs on the new Beijing-Shanghai line. Grievances among the Chinese people are often said to be localised , which is to say that people blame local officials, not the top-dogs in Beijing, for everything from land grabs to lead poisonings, oil spills to shoddily built schools that collapses during earthquakes. It is not the autocratic system of governance or the ruling Communist Party that is at fault for these failings, the argument goes, but the foibles of individuals who let down the well-intentioned leaders in Beijing.
The Wenzhou rail disaster, however, threatens to explode that fallacy, which has protected China s Communist emperors just as it did previous generations of feudal emperors before them.
The high-speed rail network is a national project; it is built and regulated by a national government ministry and has been mandated as a national prestige project for China s ruling Communist Party. There is no escaping the national share of blame. Its manifest failings vanity, corruption, shoddy construction and lax enforcement suddenly cannot be passed off as some local aberration, like the flattened schools of Sichuan. Instead, they reflect systemic failings that can be seen replicated nationally, from the house of the lowliest village party secretary right up to the mandarins sheltering behind the high walls of Beijing s modern Forbidden City, Zhongnanhai.