China’s gleaming new high-speed rail network suffered a tragic accident near Wenzhou on July 23 when a moving train plowed into a stationary one. Official reports blame a signal malfunction caused by a lightning strike, but many in China are doubting this explanation. Public suspicions were stoked when images got out showing the damaged train cars being buried before inspectors had a chance to investigate the scene. Then late on July 29, the Communist Party sought to bury negative coverage of the accident, telling media outlets to refrain from running stories or commentary unfavorable to the government’s accident response or the Railway Ministry.
Such heavy-handed decrees restricting freedom of the press are common in China. The Communist Party has effectively used control of the press and, in more recent years, the Internet to maintain its grasp on power. But China may do well to loosen that grip a tad, especially in response to such disasters as the Wenzhou train crash, where shoddy construction due to corruption is suspected.
For all the control a single party can exert over a country, it also has its limitations, especially when it comes to assessing its own workings. To maintain power, most dictatorships and single party regimes keep a tight leash on the press, much as China does. But in the process of restricting criticism, they also lose an important feedback mechanism. Inefficiencies and corruption can run rampant.
In resource rich countries, this may not be a problem. Georgy Egorov, a professor of managerial economics and decision sciences, looked at the relationship between resource availability and control of the press. What he and his co-authors found was that press freedoms were restricted in countries with more resources, like oil, but less so in countries without substantial resource bases. Higher resource countries can afford to import goods and services to placate their citizens and make up for any waste lost to corruption and inefficiency. Dictatorships with few natural resources, though, had to loosen their grip on the press to reign in corruption and determine how their policies were received by the people.
Despite unprecedented economic growth over the past few decades, China is not particularly resource rich. Though the country may have wide coal reserves, it’s numerous factories and rising standard of living mean it has to import the fuel to supplement domestic mining. China’s rapid economic growth has kept its populace happy, but there are signs that people are beginning the question growth at the expense of things like safety. Should those sentiments grow, the Communist Party would be wise to allow the press greater autonomy.
Chinese anger over alleged cover-up of high-speed rail crash – The Guardian
Media Blackout in China After Wreck – New York Times
Chinese Media Resist Curbs on Coverage of Train Crash – Wall Street Journal
Photo by stchou.