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Opinion

China's critics don't represent the voice of the Chinese people

China's politically-stifled intelligentsia has painted the recent train accident as a symbol of the Communist Party's failings, warning against the perils of rapid economic growth. But these Internet-wielding elite are venting personal frustration, not voicing the will of the Chinese people.

By Eric X. Li / August 9, 2011



Shanghai

Two trains collided and 40 people died. The transportation accident seems to be riveting the Chinese nation and dominating its newspaper pages, TV screens, and the Internet. It has claimed prominent spaces in leading international media outlets.

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All of a sudden, the entire Chinese political system seems to be on trial, its economic development model – with the high-speed rail project its latest symbol – discredited; the Chinese people are in an uproar; and Western commentators are again pronouncing a sea change that this time, with the overwhelming force of microblogs, will finally begin to bring down the Chinese miracle. One would imagine, at the very least, the trains would be totally empty.

Yet again, reality is intervening.

The Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail line finished its first month of operation having carried five and a quarter million passengers – a number not in dispute. The percentage of capacity number is very much in dispute because of differing statistical models, but even the most conservative interpretations would have the trains half full. This is not shabby for such a large-scale project in its first month, during which a much publicized fatal accident occurred. In the rest of the regular rail system, where the accident actually happened, even the fiercest critics of the railway project are admitting that the trains are nearly full as usual.

Where is the disconnect?

Loud minority voices

In the past decade, rapid growth of the Internet has created a digital public square, and its ferocity has become a unique phenomenon. While the vast majority of China’s 480 million netizens use the Internet for entertainment and commerce, a smaller group uses it to vent dissatisfaction about life, society, and the world. They express their most intense feelings about what they are most dissatisfied with in the loudest voices possible.

The nature of the Internet is such that these sentiments are amplified and assume a semblance of dominance. Its manifestation is by definition partial but not holistic, extreme but not representative. Little wonder that any casual visitor to the Chinese digital public square would find a China filled with the most extreme expressions of populism and nationalism.

Those who understand the nature of this medium would know that these expressions, while legitimate, are far from reflecting the general views of average netizens, much less the population at large. When put into an objective analytical framework, it is, at best, but one of the barometers of public opinion, and certainly not the most significant. At worst it is what Foreign Policy magazine has recently termed the “People’s Republic of Rumors.”

The frustration of the pseudo-literati

Now enter the pseudo-literati. China’s dramatic ascendancy in the last 60 years has brought prosperity to hundreds of millions of ordinary Chinese people, yet has left this particular group in a psychological vacuum. For centuries, the literati, or Shidafu, have dominated imperial China’s politics through the meritocratic Keju exam. They belonged to the intelligentsia but were effectively China’s ruling class through a vast bureaucracy. Their claim to moral authority was in accordance with the Confucian ideal that they ruled for the benefit of the people.

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