Caught in between
Will we now see a more impartial investigation into the Wenzhou train accident? It would seem so, based on last week's shuffle of the investigation team appointed by the State Council: two senior railways ministry officials were removed and a group of people with technical expertise added. But, of course, the move targeted only the most outrageous aspect of the investigation; there still aren't any systemic safeguards that would ensure the outcome of the probe is accurate and fair.
Nevertheless, it was a significant turn of events. Only Xinhua reported the news, and it did not say what caused the State Council to change its mind. We can only guess that the massive public outcry over the crash had something to do with it. Just a week earlier, Premier Wen Jiabao's solemn promises of accountability as he visited the site of the crash made us hopeful for change. What followed instead, however, was a sudden silencing of public debate. Apart from the odd microblog message expressing sympathy, you would think that nothing major had happened.
The outpouring of public sentiment may be compared with that in two earlier events: the protest in 2009 by residents of Panyu, Guangzhou, against the building of an incinerator; and, last year, the public anger about unsafe construction and corruption sparked by a deadly fire at an apartment building in the Jingan district of Shanghai. Together, these three events are being seen by some as landmark cases of human rights protection by the middle class.
In Panyu, residents won a rare victory when the construction of the incinerator was called off. In Shanghai, a week after the fire, tens of thousands of people poured into the streets to mourn the 58 people who died, in a rare expression of mass grief. In Wenzhou, we saw Premier Wen bowing to pay respects to the dead. Not only that, the compensation for a victim's family, initially set at 170,000 yuan (HK$207,000), rose to 915,000 yuan through negotiations, and the investigation team was strengthened.
Contrast this with the reactions to other disasters. Just a day before the train crash, an overcrowded bus travelling on the Beijing- Zhuhai highway caught fire near Xinyang in Henan, killing 41 passengers and injuring others. And, of course, there are the mining disasters that have kept happening over the past 30 years, the increasingly violent confrontations between residents and government officials during forced evictions, the brutal behaviour of city management officials, the preposterous detention of petitioners in secret 'black jails', the earthquake death tolls that could not be revealed, and the ever larger sums of money involved in ever more massive corruption cases. While public concern over these other disasters has not flagged, the level of public anger was nowhere near that over the Wenzhou crash. One reason is that China's middle class have been made aware of their predicament.
Although wealth disparity on the mainland has reached a dangerous level, and despite repeated exploitation by corrupt bureaucrats, middle-class people in many major mainland cities still see themselves as the de facto beneficiaries of economic development. They want to believe in the official propaganda slogans: that rapid economic growth would eventually resolve the contradictions in society, and that we could - so we've been told - 'solve our problems while moving forward'.
One of the first groups of people to attain wealth, the middle class gets to enjoy its modern comforts ahead of others. These people see no need to object too strongly to the country's backward systems; in fact, they are part of that system, and their success is evidence that the system works.
But, in recent years, they find that their dream of a good and stable life is becoming harder to realise. They've made some money and bought a property or two, only to find the fabric of their society tearing and the environment being destroyed.
They try at first to cope: if made-in-China milk formula for babies is toxic, they turn to imported alternatives; if local schools and colleges are not up to scratch, they send their children abroad for a good education; if brutal and unreasonable police action at home makes them insecure, they buy their way to a foreign passport; if they are not part of the privileged ranks that enjoy their own special supply of untainted vegetables, they spend more money to buy them directly from organic farms outside the city.
It was not until the planned construction of the Panyu incinerator, the fire in Shanghai and the train crash in Wenzhou that middle-class people awoke to the fact that they are not immune after all. There's nowhere to hide; money can do a lot, but it cannot guarantee safe living on the mainland.
Every time a change in society appears imminent, the impetus dissipates, and society is back on its original track. We see the strength of the middle class, but do not notice its predicament. Until the Wenzhou high-speed train accident, few people wanted to see the system slowed down.
It true reforms are to happen, members of the middle class must be ready to give up some of the benefits they now enjoy. But can you decline to shake hands with the premier? Can you refuse to take part in the spring festival gala? Can you take to the streets in protest? Can you break away from the system? Can you refuse to co-operate with the corrupt interests of money and power? If you do so, your own interests will be hurt; if you don't, this train will continue to dash ahead - until it crashes.
Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from Chinese