The furore over the collision in July of two trains on China’s new high speed railway has led to questions about the prospect of new freedoms, even democracy, in China.
Commentators on the crash, which killed about 40 people and injured a further 120, vented their fury on the internet, showing an unusual willingness to criticise the authorities. Their discussions targeted corruption, epitomised in the February arrest of then Minister for Railways, Liu Zhijun, as well as broader administrative failings, embodied in local officials’ slapdash rescue effort. People made comparisons with Sichuan’s shoddily built schools, which toppled in a 2008 earthquake. China’s journalists also showed themselves less willing than ever before to refrain from criticism. The government appeared wrong-footed, banning discussion days later, with China’s premier Wen Jiabao travelling to the site. He blamed ill health for his tardy arrival, bowed and promised a “transparent” investigation.
Wen’s call for transparency is notable, since he sits on the liberal wing of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but at first glance it looks misplaced. Wen’s role in government ends next year, and official media generally ignore or criticise his more liberal statements. More, no sign has emerged of the CCP moving away from habits of opacity acquired in the 1920s and 1930s, when secrecy was a matter of life and death, traditions hardened by doctrine and years of authoritarian rule.
Opacity in government also has a venerable history in China. A longstanding principle of Chinese governance has been that the administration should be visible in public life, even overbearing, but that the actual ruler should live a closeted life. Thus China’s emperors built imposing palace complexes which dominated city centres, but limited entry to all but a select few. This tradition seemingly thrives, with the CCP ruling from Zhongnanhai, a (formerly imperial) enclave within central Beijing.
A further difficulty relates to language. While the word “transparency” in English has positive connotations, recalling, say, clear but cold running water, the word in Chinese – “tou ming” – is made up of two characters which mean “penetrate”, “pierce”, or “thoroughly” (透) and “clear”, “bright” or “understand” (明). The word may thus have a more intrusive meaning than its more passive English version, unsettling to those who desire a harmonious society.
Yet Wen’s liberal stance still has roots in Chinese tradition. Confucian thinking offers the doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven or “tian ming”. This doctrine contends that the right to rule derives from heavenly authority and depends on the provision of humane and effective government; the legitimacy of the rulers thus rests in part on the perceptions of the governed. Should a ruler fail to provide good government, heaven will withdraw its mandate and the ruler will fall to a sanctioned rebellion.
As such, the mandate of heaven bears some comparison with forms of social contract such as those advocated by the western philosophers John Locke or Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It is thus arguable that the mandate of heaven could provide a Confucian underpinning to more representative government or even democracy. In addition, the mandate of heaven amounts to an ineluctable law of politics as played out in Chinese history. The model is: a ruler comes to power and establishes a new and strong administration; over time, the dynasty wanes as weaker rulers cede influence to corrupt advisers or eunuchs; a rebellion, fuelled by grievances at bad government, breaks out, or an invasion takes place; and the dynasty is replaced. This perspective bears comparison with communism, which has its own laws of historical process leading to a state of utopian socialism, although the cyclical nature of the Chinese doctrine contrasts with the linear form of Marxism. China’s citizens, aware and proud of their history, may thus watch events like the crash and ask themselves at what stage of the cycle they sit.
Theory has limited impact on life, of course, but it does show that transparency and democracy have philosophical underpinnings in the Confucian world. The political models in Chinese countries demonstrate as much, varying as they do from the noisy but flawed democracy of Taiwan, through the rule of law and relative transparency of Hong Kong, to the faux-liberalism of Singapore and the stolid authoritarianism of mainland China. In this context, it is intriguing, if mischievous, to ask whether a reunification with Taiwan might propel a real democratisation on the mainland; the Kuomintang could perhaps return to its historical role of offering a political alternative to the CCP.
A train crash does not amount to the withdrawal of the Mandate of Heaven from China’s communist rulers, nor does corruption demonstrate the morbidity of the existing dynasty. However, the Wenzhou crash did at the very least underline the difficulties of controlling information in the internet age. In this context, it could with hindsight be a milestone on the road to greater political freedom in mainland China, although that road as yet looks very long.