Sitting outside of a small bar on a tree-lined street, I recently had a conversation with a group of well-informed expats about the reaction of Chinese citizens to the recent Wenzhou train crash.
I had just returned from a vacation in the U.S. and had been oblivious to the social media firestorm (on Sina Weibo) that followed the July 23rd tragedy. I was catching up, asking what element of this story had caused it to go viral, and seemly take on a political dimension. Was it the loss of life? The failure of the heralded new transit system? The government’s response to the tragedy? Or the human drama of a child miraculously pulled from the wreckage alive?
I began to see how the threads of this story intersected, and how, carried by the rising tide of social media, it had ensnared the public consciousness. Each of my friends at the bar related stories of impassioned discussions they had witnessed among their Chinese friends and colleagues about the issue. The public interest around the story was not surprising to me, but the degree of public outrage – and the unusually pointedness of the criticism – generated by it somehow was.
What made this event so different from other human tragedies in recent years (like mine disasters) which presented seemingly similar questions of economic development versus safety?
As one of my friends pointed out, part of the answer is symbolism. The high speed rail system was a prominent symbol of a safe, modern, high-tech China, that the government carefully portrayed in promotional rhetoric. This tragedy dealt a severe blow to that image. Recent subversive art using the iconography of the train system (like this street graffiti piece, shown below) shows how former symbols of progress have been recontextualized within the public backlash.
The Wenzhou crash fractured an idyllic image of China’s future in which many citizens were emotionally invested. Through the cracks in this bright dream, broader public anxiety and frustration has begun to vent, like hot gas once trapped below tectonic plates.
When a story goes viral, it enters a feedback loop, in which media coverage begets public attention which begets additional media. Eventually this cycle wanes, as the media half-life of the story is reached, and public attention cannot be sustained by the diminishing emotional fuel. In the case of the tragic July 23rd crash, this process could take quite some time. It feels like this event has penetrated China’s public consciousness in an uncommon way.
This is a personal essay about the author’s experience learning of the Wenzhou tragedy second-hand. If you haven’t read about the Wenzhou train crash and would like more details, check these links out:
as well as opinion and analysis here:
- And on the Seventh Day News Rested by Sascha on The Hypermodern
- China’s High-Speed Politics on the NYT
- The Wenzhou Crash and the Future of Weibo
- Chinese Newspaper’s Defiant Commentary on Train Collision on the WSJ