Sunday, July 31, 2011

You don't say ...

The train issue in China is deeply distressing. It is fast becoming a symbol of some of the fundamental problems with the country and the Party today.

China Imposes Blackout on Train Wreck Coverage
After days of growing public fury over last month’s crash and the government’s reaction, Chinese authorities have enacted a virtual news blackout on the disaster.

Beijing imposes media ban on rail crash coverage
Chinese newspapers, which last week defied government censors, were forced to scrap pages of coverage of the Wenzhou rail crash at the last minute on Friday night, after the Communist party’s propaganda organ issued an order restricting crash coverage that was not “positive”.

How can you not give people time to mourn and memorialize those who have been lost? Why would you shut off coverage instead of allowing the public to grieve together? Moreover, shedding light on problems and harnessing public outrage can help force changes in a corruption-riddled rail system. Do you want to solve fundamental problems or not?

This quote struck me as an articulation of one of the basic problems in China, and it's something I've discussed with many friends over the years. Yet so many years later, it's still the same issue:

The host of the television program asked: “If nobody can be safe, do we still want this speed? Can we drink a glass of milk that’s safe? Can we stay in an apartment that will not collapse? China, please slow down. If you’re too fast, you may leave the souls of your people behind.”

It's just so frustrating and tragic. When 76 people in Norway are killed, it is a time for deep mourning and for national reflection. People talk about how this could have come to pass in Norwegian society -- what the implications are, how to respond so that Norway's values are maintained, while also improving security. The government's response will be scrutinized deeply so that such an incident will not happen again.

In China, when 40 people are killed, the media is told to play up positive coverage and make it a "feel-good" event to bolster the Party. Aside from the crassness, where is the introspection? It's not only the Railway Ministry that has to respond, because it wasn't just a technical hiccup. People have to ask themselves, what kind of society, what kind of incentive structure, what kind of system gave rise to the conditions that resulted in this tragedy? Should we accept things on those terms, or what needs to change? But none of these questions will be asked.

The attitude is cavalier: "Just mop up. Hey folks, shows over, get back in line." No time for mourning ... I can't even fathom the idea of pretending that everything is okay, everything is all right. Sanitize history, sanitize news, sanitize life. Blot it all out, because everything has always been all right.

Good for the Economic Observer. They're willing to speak what is. From the WSJ:
China’s Economic Observer decided this weekend to publish a hard-hitting special report on the previous week’s high-speed train collision near the city of Wenzhou, defying strict orders from propaganda authorities in Beijing to play down coverage of the accident.

While many other newspapers obediently killed reports and took the train collision off their front pages in response to Friday night’s order, the Economic Observer devoted eight pages to its special report, entitled “No Miracles in Wenzhou,” and promoted it on its front page with a striking illustration showing the logo for the Ministry of Railways superimposed over a black-and-white photo of one of the ruined trains.

Beneath that image was an equally striking commentary on the accident titled “Yiyi, When You’re Older.” The commentary, which takes the government to task for its opaque handling of the accident, it written as a letter to Xiang Weiyi, a 2-year-old girl whose “miraculous” rescue has been widely trumpeted in state media.

Excerpts from that essay, translated by China Real Time:

Yiyi, when you’ve grown up and started to understand this world, how should we explain to you everything that happened on July 23, 2011? That train that would never arrive, it took away 40 lives that loved and were loved, including your parents. When you’re grown, will we and this country we live in be able to honestly tell you about all the love and suffering, anger and doubts around us?

How do we tell you that, even as they’d declared there were no more signs of life in the wreckage and had started cleaning up the site, you were still there struggling in the crushed darkness. Do we tell you that, with the truth still far off in the distance, they buried the engine; that before any conclusions had been reached, the line that had given birth to this tragedy was declared open. They called your survival a miracle, but how do we explain it to you: When respect for life had been trampled, caring forgotten, responsibility cast aside, the fact that you fought to survive – what kind of miracle is this?

Yiyi, one day you might pass by this place again. When the train whistle once again startles this silent land, will we reluctantly tell you about all the hypocrisy, arrogance, rashness and cruelty behind this tragic story?

Yiyi, we should tell you the truth, our country has been this way before. We want to tell you, those adults you see have wondered countless times whether in this era we’ve forgotten love, caring and basic trust. We’re full of complaints, but our anger is only that. We believe without doubt that life will continue on this way.

Yiyi, how do we explain to you that, at that time, there were two completely different images of China: one blossoming in the midst of the people, the other hidden in officialdom. We hope that when you’ve grown up and understand things, when you’ve learned to see with your own eyes, think with your own mind and encounter this world through your own actions, you will find this has changed.

Now, Yiyi, on behalf of you lying there on that sickbed and those lives buried in the ground, people are refusing to give up on finding the truth. Truth cannot be buried – no one plans to give up the inquiry. We know that anything we take lightly today might lead to our rights being violated and our lives being ignored again tomorrow. We reap what we sow. If every fact we seek becomes a secret, we’ll never know the truth. If we keep giving up half way in our pursuit of dignity, we will never be treated with dignity.

To live – to live with dignity – is that rainbow you get to see only after suffering through the wind and the rain. Yiyi, when you’re older maybe you’ll realize that dark night of July 23 was when things started to change. After that day, we won’t simply complain, but instead learn how to advocate and act. We understand that we have rights, we respect these rights and are will spare no effort to protect them.

Yiyi, if we’re going to promise you and other regular children like you a future, the journey must start from the wreckage of the train collision. That is the best way to remember your parents, and all the others who perished there.

– Josh Chin. Follow him on Twitter @joshchin

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