Partly because the victims of this tragedy are members of the new middle class, it has been impossible to keep a lid on the story. Users of Weibo, a Twitter-like microblogging site, have produced an outpouring of contemptuous comment. One posted photos of the rail minister’s fancy watch collection, an indication of his less than modest lifestyle. Weibo alone boasts 140m users, mostly from the urban middle class that the Communist party is supposed to have co-opted into its modernising project.
A middle class revolt is particularly dangerous for the Chinese leadership. It undermines a recent truism of Chinese analysis, sometimes referred to as the Beijing consensus. This contends, among other things, that people don’t worry too much about democracy, freedom of expression and free markets so long as they have a technocratic leadership capable of delivering economic progress.
The cult of GDPism appears no longer to hold. China grew at 10.3 per cent last year, and should clear at least 9 per cent this year. But while taxi drivers riot in Hangzhou over low wages, the revolt over the train crash has been over the more abstract concept of governance. China’s middle class wants a leadership that can contain corruption, ensure safety and not put pride above engineering principles. It wants, in the arresting words of a commentary in the People’s Daily – of all places – economic growth that is not “smeared in blood”.