Sunday, July 31, 2011

Chinese Train Derailment

On July 23rd, two-high speed trains collided in China causing 40 deaths and 192 injuries.  The crash is being blamed on government corruption and the ensuing cover-up has caused a public furor.  Many see the situation as a metaphor for the unchecked growth that the Chinese government is pursuing.

Let me be clear, I admire the Chinese for using the government to build up their infrastructure.  The 20th century American investment in our highway system has returned untold dividends.  There are a few things that I believe are difficult to fund too much: preventive maintenance and upgrades to basic infrastructure, basic science, and education (this does not include the current debauchery of the student loan system, but that’s a post for another day).

So I don’t fault the Chinese for building up their infrastructure.  Where I do find blame is their rampant government corruption.  Reports have come out stating that the Chinese government has been taking people’s land without fair compensation.  The WSJ reports that there have been two recent firings of high ranking members of the Chinese railways ministry for graft.  I think in the coming weeks we’ll find that the Chinese trains and their tracks weren’t built to spec with the government officials pocketing the difference between public safety and peril.

Listen, I live in Chicago, so I know a corrupt government (Some attribute “Vote early and vote often.” to our own Al Capone, but it was used earlier).  Power corrupts, and that is certain.  But there are ways to check government power and therefore corruption.

It’s said that “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”  A system of checks and balances for the government is needed, with an educated public and the media playing a vital role.  And on a positive note, the Chinese people are increasingly connected and working together to hold the government accountable.

As noted in this WSJ article, in 2000 there were 10 million Chinese on the Internet.  Now there are estimated to be 485 million.  The Chinese version of Twitter, Weibo, is an increasingly popular communication tool.  The WSJ notes

The government censors much content on the Internet, but it has allowed a surprising degree of openness on Weibo and other sites. In part, experts say, that's because it sees online commentary as a release valve for the public, but the government also fears the fury that would erupt if it took away those outlets.

I disagree with the experts here.  The Chinese government doesn’t censor Weibo to allow a release valve for the public.  Weibo isn’t censored because it’s not feasible to censor it and still allow it to exist.  How can you monitor, much less politically censor, a Twitter clone that has nearly eight times more users than Twitter?  To me there are two choices for the Chinese government in this situation: shut down Weibo outright or have a trivial amount of censorship of the site that amounts to nothing.

While the Internet is relatively open, China is cracking down on traditional state media reporting of the train accident, as reported by the New York Times today.

The sudden order from the Communist Party’s publicity department, handed down late Friday, forced newspaper editors to frantically tear up pages of their Saturday editions, replacing investigative articles and commentaries about the accident that killed 40 people in eastern China with cartoons or unrelated features.

Replacing tragic news with cartoons?  This would be funny if it weren’t so sad.  Because the Chinese people won’t be able to get news from the state-run media, they’ll increasingly look to the Internet.  I just hope that they’ll still be able to access it.

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