The Most Insensitive Story on the Wenzhou Rail Crash

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I just see a train crash, but others see an indictment of socialism.

And the lucky journalist is Megan McArdle of The Atlantic, who wrote “The Significance of China’s First High-Speed Rail Disaster.” Why does McArdle win the coveted insensitivity award? Well, as it turns out, she believes the disaster is significant because it tells us that democracy is better than autocracy and that the United States should be thankful for the infrastructure system that it has.

Stupid, but somehow all that stuff about the U.S. escaped me over the past couple of days. How thoughtless of me. McArdle must be confused as to why this crash received so much press coverage here in China without anyone talking about how this relates to the United States. China’s media sure is incompetent.

Here’s her first sentence, which tells you a lot about her point of view:

With all the other horrible events of the weekend, China’s high speed rail crash sort of faded into the background.

OK, I understand that she is an American journalist writing in an American publication meant for an American audience, but still, I gotta respectfully tell her to fuck off with that first comment. Outside of Asia, the crash might have received limited coverage, but would it have killed her to at least tack on a qualifier or something to that sentence?

Moving on to the substance of McArdle’s argument:

China’s decision to build a $400 billion, 16,000 km high speed rail network in the space of a few years was initially greeted with awe at their committment to winning the future, and laments from the usual suspects that America could never do something this fantabulous.

This is her setup. Those “usual suspects” (i.e. dirty rotten hippie liberals who support public works) who talked up China’s infrastructure expansion (i.e. thought it was so “fantabulous”) and criticized the crumbling U.S. counterpart sure have egg on their face now, right? Traitorous Commie sympathizers, every last one of ’em.

And here is where she lowers the rhetorical boom, reminding all of us who may have talked up Chinese infrastructure building in the past at the expense of U.S. roads, bridges, rail, etc.

While I was in China last year, I wrote:

Viewed from a purely technological perspective, America’s high speed rail is an embarrassment compared to China’s: shaky, slow, and not particularly sleek. But viewed in another way, our slow rail network is the price for a lot of great things about America: our limits on government power, our democratic political system, and the fact that we’re already rich enough to have an enormous amount of existing infrastructure, in the form of houses, industrial plant, and roads, that would be very expensive to tear up in the name of building rail lines. All in all, I think these things are more valuable than even a really cool train system.

Now that the really cool train system seems to be maybe slightly deadly, I feel this more strongly than ever.

Whenever I hear “When I was in China last year . . .” I know that the next few words are going to be stupid and ignorant. Nauseating smugness aside, though, the part I really can’t stand is that line about how a slow, crappy rail system is the price that America pays for . . . well, to be honest, I couldn’t really figure out what the hell she was getting at there.

I sat and stared at the wall for a few minutes trying to figure out what was the connection between bad trains and a democratic political system. The only thing I got out of the process was a slight headache and a dirty look from the cat (I think staring at the wall for no reason is her schtick).

McArdle then goes off on a barely comprehensible tangent about autocracy and public policy. Her point? That anyone who argues that China’s system of government has some advantages over American-style democracy is wrong, and that somehow the Wenzhou crash is evidence of this.

For what it’s worth, most reasonable people understand that democracy and autocracy both have advantages and disadvantages. Apparently McArdle is a purist.

Here’s the big wrap-up that should appeal to her conservative American readers:

We don’t know that this accident was caused by China’s autocratic political system; even the best-run systems do occasionally have accidents.  But what’s emerging from behind the shiny pictures of whizzy trains and smiling engineers is a story of overreach, corruption, and possibly disastrous construction shortcuts.  We should not lament the fact that we couldn’t do anything like this here.

I was with her until the last sentence, which again makes absolutely no sense. A few points of logic:

1. The Wenzhou crash doesn’t mean that all of China’s infrastructure is worthless. There might be endemic corruption, standards and quality problems, but the system seems to be working fine in many other areas. This sweeping generalization is rather lame. When that bridge collapsed in Minnesota a couple of years ago, was that evidence that the entire American road system was on the verge of collapse? (Some would argue yes!)

2. U.S. infrastructure is an embarrassment no matter how you look at it. There is absolutely no reason why a democracy can’t spend the money to upgrade it like Roosevelt and Eisenhower did in the past. Saying that not doing so is a vindication of democracy over autocracy is a ridiculous excuse for inaction. Even a Tea Party/conservative Republican type wouldn’t go that far.

3. This manufactured debate about the crash and China’s system of government, written a couple days after the accident as the rescue workers are still pulling bodies out the wreckage, is really poor timing. And this is coming from someone (i.e. me) who usually couldn’t give a shit about hurting people’s feelings. She couldn’t have waited a couple of weeks and written something a bit more academic for Foreign Affairs or something?

Let me put my cards on the table here. I’m no fan of Megan McArdle. Her big thing seems to be spouting off Chicago School talking points in order to justify Republican policies, and doing it such a way that makes it seem as though she’s the only adult in the room. Her response to liberal ideas is usually “Grow up.”

A lot of people are talking about the Wenzhou crash and what it says about corruption, incompetence, the fast pace of infrastructure construction, and so on. Plenty of questions out there. But taking this one crash and using it to somehow vindicate the deplorable state of U.S. infrastructure is laughable.

24 responses on “The Most Insensitive Story on the Wenzhou Rail Crash

  1. Justin Liu

    It’s writing like this that makes me think that China is still a political society in a way that America isn’t anymore. People like Mrs. McArdle who are so smug about the virtues of the existing system, it gives people a sense that it is no longer necessary to challenge power. Power that is completely unaccountable is silent. It doesn’t need to speak or silence the popular voices of dissent. The system is stable. As strange as it sounds, I think censorship is a positive sign and the attempts towards censorship as an indicator that power in a society not completely sewn up. That the government is still afraid of what people feel and what people say.

    Nader (I know you’re a fan haha) said something that I found interesting. He said Nixon was the last liberal president of the United States. I think it was because paranoid Nixon was the last president that was afraid of popular movements and as a result some of America’s most progressive legislation was passed under his watch. The EPA, OSHA, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, cost-of-living adjustment to Social Security, and expanded food stamps and welfare assistance.

    1. Stan Post author

      That’s an interesting way to look at things. Not sure I agree, but I will say this: the U.S. political establishment, and the power behind it, certainly do not seem accountable to the public. Even when a bunch of them get kicked out of office (e.g. 2010), the guys who replace them are still water carriers for moneyed interests. Nothing changes. The US government doesn’t have to worry about censorship; even when the truth is out there outside the mainstream media, no one pays attention.

      FYI, while Nixon would be considered a liberal Republican today, keep in mind that many of those laws, like the Clean Water Act, were passed in spite of his opposition.

  2. JH Tan

    How could Megan McArdle turn a human disaster into a propaganda piece of writing. Remember the Space Shuttle Challenger which expoloded 73 seconds into its flight leading to the death of its 7 crew members? Sure America can do something this fantabulous.

      1. buddy up

        Now who’s taking cheap shots to score ideological points?

        India is a mess, yes, but that doesn’t mean that a Chinese democracy would be at all similar. India is overly factionalized. I am sure that any Chinese move to be more democratic would anticipate and address this problem.

        And a bit more accountability wouldn’t hurt: there have been numerous incidents like shoddy construction exposed in the Sichuan earthquake, not to mention milk and HIV scandals.

        You think having officials held accountable to the public for these things would turn China into India?

        That’s just a cheap shot from people who are anti-democratic.

  3. AndyR

    You had me at fantabulous. You sure this op-ed wasn’t from “Seventeen Magazine”?

    Oh and rabble rabble rabble “Western media” rabble rabble…

    1. Stan Post author

      You know, that choice of the word “fantabulous” speaks volumes. I tried to think of a way to explain it in the post and gave it up — too nuanced. Whatever else one can say, it was incredibly demeaning and snarky, leaning almost in an ad hominem direction, and taps into an anti-elitist (i.e., anyone who actually supports public transportation must be a latte-sipping, Whole Foods shopper and not a Real American) sentiment.

  4. Dan

    Reminds me of a story I saw on the floods in China. The article was on how ten people had died in a flash flood and it quoted (and I’m not shitting here) a government official talking about how needed the rain was. The best rules when there is a tragedy is to never mention how the victims were at all to blame, not get political, and not compare those who died to Hitler youth. Did I miss any?

    1. Stan Post author

      I’m with you on all those except for the Hitler Youth thing. I mean, theoretically a situation exists out there where the comparison is valid. Just because we haven’t seen it yet . . . 😉

  5. Mark

    I hear people in China make the same point, but they just use very different terminology. Usually they’ll use the phrases “transparency” and “corruption” instead of “autocracy.” The fundamental spirit is the same, though.

    1. Stan Post author

      That would be true if non-transparency and corruption were always the byproduct of autocratic governments. Many people believe this. I don’t. If you ask your average Zhou on the street over here if China could keep its basic form of government while still reforming to satisfy the complaints of the public, I bet a lot of folks would say yes. I’m not sure whether it can or not, but I’m not willing to dismiss the possibility outright.

  6. Bradley Gardner

    Though I do think McArdle is fantastically clueless when it comes to China. I think the article is meant to be a response to Thomas Friedman who is even more clueless. The fact that America’s debate about China runs between the clueless and the more clueless is probably the most concerning facet about this article.

  7. D

    Fantabulous! People forget the horrible rail disaster in Shandong…. this ain’t the first. China DOES have awfully crafted buildings, and roads, etc. China has horrible upkeep. Sure, we have much better roads and rail here in China than India, but you can already see the main roads in Shangjai and Beijing that are 10 years old starting to deteriorate. Chinese can build, but they can’t maintain.

    On another note:

    “When I was in China last year . . .” I ate some local delicacies called “noodles” and ate with a couple of one-pronged forks in one hand!

    “When I was in China last year . . .” I saw these people with dark hair and dark skin all around me, all the time.

    “When I was in China last year . . .” I saw that they actually breed and talk and appear to be somewhat like “us”.

    “When I was in China last year . . .” I probably was not there long enough (i.e. a few years) to get over both jetlag and culture shock.

  8. Richard

    There is much schadenfreude amongst the American commentariat vis a vis the Wenzhou crash. Some, like Megan McArdle, were so quick to use the Wenzhou crash to indict all Chinese infrastructure projects. In reality, Chinese rail networks have a better safety record than that of the U.S. and MUCH better than that robust democracy India.

    Yesterday, a train carrying hazardous materials derailed in California. 21 cars derailed and 250 homes were evacuated. Surely if Xinhua or China Daily were to publish a story using this incident as some sort of analogy for the U.S. political system, we would all laugh at them (although a “train crash” certainly comes to mind when pondering the debt negotiations in Congress). Megan McArdle is insane to think “it can’t happen here.” Does anyone remember that bridge collapse in Minnesota (the I-35W) that was basically a result of neglecting a bunch of negative inspection reports? Does that sound like the byproduct of a transparent and efficient regulatory system? The U.S. and China have much more in common in this regard than any Americans would like to admit.

    I love this gem from Stan: “Whenever I hear ‘When I was in China last year . . .’ I know that the next few words are going to be stupid and ignorant.” When it comes to China, every small incident is somehow evident of a larger issue. Every commentator seems happy to twist any incident to fit into a preconceived narrative.

    1. buddy up

      That would depend on how the government reacted to the crash, wouldn’t it? If they started to restrict freedom of speech to avoid culpability, then that would certainly warrant a sharp reaction.

  9. Lu

    I suppose that I could patrol the English speaking internet each and every day for examples of idiocy of one kind or another. Seems like a complete waste of time, if you ask me. For every example of an American idiot “demonizing” China, I bet I could find ten examples of Chinese idiots giving every bit as good as they get. In fact, so self-righteous and un-ironic is China’s constant whining about the West’s “demonization” that I no longer feel the least bit sorry when someone gets China completely wrong. I’ve sat in graduate seminars at Peking University and listened while esteemed faculty prattle on about the West. I’ve read a hundred dissertations written by Chinese classmates that were as motivated by patriotism and grievance against the West as by the genuine desire to engage in serious critical inquiry. I’ve listened to a Chinese government spokesman rail against Jack Cafferty’s comments about Chinese “thugs,” and then walked outside to find a Global Times headline reading “U.S. a danger to world peace.”

    In China last week a bus burst into flames and 41 people died, 20 or so people in Xinjiang were killed by government security forces, and a train accident killed 40+ and injured the better part of 200. In addition, just yesterday, one riot in Foshan ended with several Chinese police officers beaten and tied to a car by an angry mob, and in another in Anshun hundreds of people fought police after a fruit seller was beaten to death. Think about it.

    In the end, I don’t give a flying shit about nice roads and shiny new airports. That stuff doesn’t impress me at all. Give me potholes, JFK Airport, and the Tea Party. Who cares about a dumb essay in The Atlantic?

  10. Douglas

    The purist defenders of democracy over autocracy usually sound like autocrats. So, I don’t listen to them. Anyone who seeks to offer clarity by being shrill about one particular perspective is not someone I should gain any insight from. Thanks for an entertaining breakdown of this silliness.