On July 23, two high-speed trains collided on an elevated track near the Chinese city of Wenzhou, killing at least 39 people and injuring several hundred. In the days since the crash, shock and sympathy have turned to outrage as the Chinese government's propagandistic, face-saving response to the tragedy has run headlong into the increasingly wired and cynical Chinese public.

Even before the crash, the government's triumphalism around the development of China's high-speed rail system had fostered a growing backlash, particularly as safety and operational problems have dogged the system, and unparalleled corruption has been exposed in connection with it. As the China Media Project pointed out in a scathing post on the history of propaganda around high-speed rail, the Communist Party's relentless boosting of high-speed rail meant that "harder questions — about corruption, waste, quality, safety, service and intellectual property — were submerged by feel-good propaganda."

Even after the railways minister who spearheaded the HSR project was implicated in a massive $100 million corruption case earlier this year, and HSR rail-lines have suffered a series of problems, the Chinese government continued a steady drumbeat of stories touting its achievement. In one particularly outrageous moment, the ministry of railways spokesperson told a July 7 press conference, "The Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway and Japan's Shinkansen line cannot be mentioned in the same breath, as many of the technological indicators used by China's high-speed railways are far better than those used in Japan's Shinkansen."

This chest thumping was already starting to grate before the crash. After a series of problems on the Shanghai-Beijing line, commentators on the Twitter-like Weibo service accused the government of putting vanity projects ahead of the safety of Chinese citizens—that is, until their tweets were "harmonized" by the censors. In the wake of the Wenzhou crash, these rumblings have turned into a roar. Before the Chinese government's propaganda machinery could shift from its initial response to the Wenzhou crash (i.e. silence, obfuscation) to focus on disseminating its version of events, passengers on the trains and others at the scene began instantaneously reporting on the unfolding tragedy via Weibo (ChinaGeeks has a good roundup of Chinese web-user reactions). They not only tweeted eyewitness reports but also uploaded photos and video, many of which seemed inconsistent with the information (or lack thereof) coming from official sources. By the time the government's propaganda and spin control efforts got fully underway, citizen journalists had already seized control of the narrative. The clumsy efforts of the propagandists who, in typical form, ordered news outlets to accentuate the positive and not to conduct their own investigations into what happened have been widely disregarded even in the state-run press. The exposure of these directives has served to reinforce growing public cynicism. An instant poll on Sina's Weibo service had 98 percent of users voting that the government had buried the damaged rail cars in the Wenzhou crash in order to destroy evidence of what really happened. In response to this apparently widespread public perception and the outrage it had engendered, the authorities reversed course and dug up the rail cars in order to perform a more thorough investigation. In a further effort to quell public anger, Premier Wen Jiabao demanded a comprehensive investigation of the crash, the results of which should be made public.

But it doesn't seem to be working. To get an understanding of why, read ChinaGeeks' translation of a web posting attributed to China's most popular blogger, the race car driver and author Han Han, entitled "The Derailed Country." In his cryptic but provocative style, Han contrasts the thinking of officialdom with the thoughts of those they ostensibly serve ("You feel like you’re the victim. So do they."). He describes an unbridgeable gap between the government and the governed that should make those on both sides incredibly nervous.

As Walter Russell Mead noted in a recent essay, "In China we see a society that is rapidly outgrowing its regime, and an economic model that is outliving its usefulness before its work is done." The authoritarian Chinese system is reaching the end of its institutional capacity to handle a society whose aspirations grow more complex and conflicted by the day. The real-time, widespread nature of mobile communication is at the leading edge of this transformation and the party has placed a bet with itself and the Chinese people that it can control this highly unpredictable, extremely disruptive technology. The party's approach to propaganda – a willingness to use modern techniques in the pursuit of old-fashioned Marxist ends – is in some ways like a snake eating its own tail, and it is ultimately unsustainable. Unfortunately, as this latest episode has tragically demonstrated, this system will undoubtedly live to do more damage before it destroys itself.

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