Social unrest gets off the rails

Well, it was inevitable that there would be some sort of malfunction/delay on the new Beijing Shanghai high speed rail, but considering the scale and speed of the construction, this delay doesn’t seem all that bad.

China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported late last night, in both Chinese and English releases, that the G151 train on the country’s brand-new Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway suffered a malfunction yesterday that resulted in a delay of “more than an hour.” On the basis of reports in social media, however, news websites (including Shanghai’s Xinmin Online), reported that the delay was two hours. Xinhua reported that “this malfunction was principally caused by thunderstorms.”

The magnitude of this delay should, I think, also be taken in the context of the alternatives available for Chinese domestic transport. Airlines are routinely, and I mean ROUTINELY delayed and even canceled for reasons significantly less extreme than a thunderstorm and buses, so too are the normal train lines. Therefore, some of the reactions seem a bit extreme. In particular, I find it odd that a delay would need to be accompanied by concerns for safety, which doesn’t necessarily follow from such a delay. Some of the comments are as follows:

“And they call it the safest rail in the world,” said user “turan kongjian” (突然空闲).

“The facts clearly show that the talk of being the safest is just hot air,” said user “yinbao xiaoxiong” (尹抱小熊), responding to another user who wrote: “Strange! This should be investigated! We should hold those responsible to account according to the law!”

“I’m sure this is just the beginning,” said user “jackie51″.

“How tragic is fast-food-style China!” bemoaned “yiguogudu_ye.”

“Taking an airplane is a lot safer. I’d rather wait in the airport, at least it’s safe,” said user “cha’ersicao” (查尔斯曹).

In the end, more than specific safety concerns for high speed rail, this sentiment is emblematic of a broader lack of trust for government policies generally. Regardless of the project, be it the large scale infrastructure development projects like the Three Gorges Dam or the aforementioned high speed rail or even the local housing development projects and the associated demolitions, people are pessimistic of the intent and the implementation of these projects.

Consequently, the Chinese government is in a bit of a Catch-22 situation: Because of the financial crisis, government policy is necessary, but at the same time it lacks legitimacy. Effectively implementing the kind of comprehensive policy China needs now will inevitably be difficult without the people buying into it. Handling this problem without political liberalization is going to be a difficult task.

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