Megan Shank and Jeffrey Wasserstrom: China’s High-Speed Crash Leads to Legitimacy Crisis






Megan Shank is a freelance writer and Chinese translator living in New York City whose work has appeared in Bloomberg News, Newsweek, Ms. Magazine, Archaeology and The Daily Beast, among others. She wrote a chapter for the forthcoming anthology Chinese Characters (University of California Press, 2012), and formerly worked in Shanghai as an editor at the now defunct Chinese-language edition of Newsweek. Jeffrey Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, and the author, most recently, of "China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know," published this year by Oxford University Press. His commentaries and reviews have appeared in a wide range of academic journals, as well as in general interest periodicals such as Time and Newsweek.

As their peers elsewhere, young Chinese readers have devoured the Harry Potter series. They would doubtless flock to see the final film that debuted in dozens of other foreign markets July 13. But in China, the film’s release has been delayed — and not for the usual political reasons. Harry Potter, after all, features a story Chinese leaders should enjoy: a small band of committed followers triumphs over great odds (shades of the Long March and the road to the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic of China) and a time of chaos gives way to peace and prosperity (reminiscent of China’s Reform era rise to greatness after 100 years of foreign bullying and the ensuing traumas of the Cultural Revolution).

Instead of Harry and Hermione, President Hu and company have made sure that most screen space in China is set aside for one of their latest high-cost pet projects, Beginning of the Great Revival: The Founding of a Party, a star-studded epic commemorating the 90-year anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. The film has left audiences cold and full of complaints. For many, it feels like a throwback to more benighted times, of being forced to watch low-quality entertainment to prove one’s political loyalty.

This grumbling was nothing compared to the fury that erupted last weekend in regard to a very different high-cost vanity project — China’s much-vaunted, but trouble-plagued of late, high-speed trains.

On July 23, a high-speed train stalled on a viaduct outside the city of Wenzhou. Another high-speed train rear-ended it. Four carriages fell, and officially 39 people died and about 200 were injured. The Central Propaganda Department demanded the press accept official accounts without question. They advanced the theme “in the face of tragedy, there is great love.” Before the ruined trains had cooled, authorities began burying the wreckage....



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