A continuing, often bitter, argument among “China hands” is over where the introduction of elements of market economy and attendant technology would take Communism “with Chinese characteristics”.
Just as two decades of remarkable Chinese economic successes has been exaggerated, Pollyannaish speculation argued economic development would bring greater freedom. Former Secretary of State Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, now claiming Chinese expertise, argues outside pressure cannot modify Beijing’s repression. But he holds out hope — as do many of his persuasion — economic progress will eventually bring a free society.
Another school has held economic development and technology is morally and politically “neutral”, as the successes of both the Nazi and Soviet regimes proved – at least temporarily. [The Nazis used vaunted German chemistry to develop a gas for efficient killing of Jews in the Auschwitz “showers”. And Stalinism sent man into space, suppressing all heavy missile launching losses.]
The Beijing regime’s successes after hundreds of rebellious students and workers were slaughtered at Tien An Mien square in 1989 has added weight to that hypothesis. For example, The Great Firewall of China, internet censorship – using at least 50,000 employees costing initially $800 million, along with “self-censorship”, the threat of imprisonment or worse — has stifled opposition.
But as so often happens, one event, sometimes relatively minor, can swerve history in new directions. We saw that when a Tunisian roadside fruit peddler’s self-immolation set off revolt throughout the Arab world. Surprisingly to most outside observers, Beijing feared contagion from Arab disturbances and launched a new crackdown. For example, in 2010 Beijing closed 1.3 million websites — almost halving the number.
Now comes the mid-August wreck of two new high-speed trains encapsulating what is happening culturally as well as in the economy and politics.
Having snookered Japanese, French and German train manufacturers into providing technology for vast high-speed rail network expansion, the Chinese had already tried to export trains. In the complex skein of globalized economy, there was a short-lived preposterous proposal to buy Chinese trains for California to be funded partly by Obama Administration’s stimulus funds. Foreign companies cried “foul”, arguing they were victims of all too common Chinese theft of intellectual property. And Japanese manufacturers formally abnegated responsibility for faulty Chinese manufacture and operation. Bottom line: the largely unexplained accident has dimmed hopes for high end exports needed to keep China’s boom going, now plagued with rising prices and worldwide competition from other low cost labor producers.
But the train accident unleashed far more. By standards of Chinese disasters, natural and man-made, it was small potatoes: officially 39 dead and 190 injured. Still some of China’s 457 million “netizens” [internet correspondents and bloggers] were quick to challenge official explanations one train had rammed into another immobilized by lightning. That kind of accident, Japanese developers of the first superfast trains were quick to point out, was impossible on their lines, virtually accident-free for three decades. And too many Chinese cellphone cameras recorded the wreck, government efforts to minimize the casualties, to bury wreckage and then – after protests — to uncover the same wreckage!
Quickly, too, bloggers ragged government’s dismissals of “responsible” railway officials – already under public accusations of corruption — when a replacement turned out to have been demoted after an earlier wreck. Then there was high comedy with outgoing Prime Minister Wen Jaibao who styles himself just a fuddydutty old Chinese grandfather arriving at disasters to console the mourners. This time he excused himself, ostensibly on doctor’s orders. But netizens quickly dug up video showing him buoyantly healthy, meeting a Japanese trade delegation only a day after the accident.
So loud has been the bloggers’ furor, official media reluctantly joined in — or as is common in intra-Party power struggles, were being used in the blame game, especially on the eve of next year’s planned generational changeover. An editorial in People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, called for an end to the country’s blind pursuit of “blood-smeared GDP”. That comes close to the jugular: Beijing’s two decades old economic-political strategy in pursuit of maximum growth to assuage the absence of abandoned Communist orthodoxy. What has been that successful strategy to meet demands of an impoverished population is already threatened by cutbacks in its chief motor, unlimited infrastructure expansion, in order to rein in incipient inflation.
Next chapter in China’s 5,000-year history may have begun.