One of the regularly offered predictions in the debate over the political future of China is the idea that as incomes, freedom, and access to information increase, movement toward liberal-democratic government becomes inevitable. The way a story about a deadly school bus crash this week is raising deep seated social concerns shows how that idea just might be right.
On Wednesday a kindergarten school bus in rural, western Gansu crashed killing 21 students, the driver and teacher. The bus was extremely overcrowded. The back seats had been removed and children were packed in on small benches without seatbelts. What to western eyes would be a van that could carry maybe 9 or 10 was carrying 61 people.
This kind of overcrowding is not uncommon. It’s understood as common practice around the country. Recently, 2 students were killed in Beijing when an overcrowded school bus taking migrant children to their unlicensed school on the outskirts of town crashed.
The public reaction has brought up government corruption. Why are students crammed into tiny vans when government officials all drive fancy cars? Why are school buildings falling apart while officials work in palatial office buildings? There’s also talk of mismanagement. Where is the system of safety regulation that should keep children safe?
Then there’s the reaction that brings up social inequalities. These students were being bussed from their small rural villages to school in a nearby town, for many this means long commutes each day. They are also achingly poor. Many are separated from their parents who work in faraway cities. The contrast between that and some of the pampered children in big east coast cities is stark.
What is tacitly acknowledged in all of these criticisms is that these problems are systemic. This is not just one school bus in one province. And that’s the politically transformative part: people acknowledging wide-spread failures in the system. Sounds a lot like the foundation of a political consciousness, or at least the source of some political pressure that needs to be appeased.