- Associated Press - Thursday, August 4, 2011

BEIJING China’s bullet train was supposed to signal the country’s arrival as a high-tech leader. Instead, a crash that killed at least 40 people has made it a lightning rod for anger at the human cost of recklessly fast development.

On the Internet and in normally docile state media, the July 23 disaster triggered outrage about China’s drumbeat of deaths from bridge and schoolhouse collapses, coal mine explosions, tainted milk and other disasters.

“I can’t tell whether the current society is moving forward or backward. If it’s moving forward, why does it have to be paid for in lives?” said a comment on the popular Sina.com microblog site, signed Countryman Shen Xiaobao.

The crash is especially sensitive for communist leaders because it hurt members of China’s urban middle class, who are among the chief beneficiaries of the booming economy and an important base of support for the Communist Party’s continued monopoly on power.

The bullet train, based on German and Japanese systems, is one facet of far-reaching government technology ambitions that call for developing a civilian jetliner, a Chinese mobile phone standard and advances in nuclear power and genetics.

Even before the crash, high-speed rail was a target for critics, who said it was too expensive and unsuited to a nation where gross domestic product per person was $4,200 last year and many families were living on less than that. They say China’s poor majority need cheaper tickets, not record-setting speeds of 190 mph or more.

Plans call for the high-speed rail network to grow to 8,000 miles this year and 10,000 miles by 2020. It is part of a building boom that has blanketed China with new highways, airports and other public works.

That has pushed investment as a share of China’s economy close to 50 percent, three to four times the level of the United States, Japan or other major economies. Analysts warn that is dangerously high and could leave China with a glut of unneeded assets and state-owned banks burdened with bad loans.

Yet the public backlash might give Beijing political ammunition against ambitious and big-spending local leaders as it tries to reorient China’s economy away from reliance on exports and investment in favor of promoting cleaner, self-sustaining growth.

There are no signs that the criticism is abating. China’s middle classes are informed, Internet-savvy and unlikely to swallow their anger despite a government order for state media to tone down negative coverage of the accident.

A search on Sina.com’s microblog site for the words “bullet train” and “crash” Monday turned up more than 688,000 postings.

The Communist Party has promised repeatedly to slow China’s growth, but local leaders are reluctant to rein in the flood of investment, which can show results faster and burnish their careers.

“It does present a chance for them to use safety as another reason to encourage local officials to be more sensitive to growing smarter rather than just quickly,” said Kenneth Jarrett, chairman for Greater China for consulting firm APCO Worldwide.

Beijing has adopted the language of its critics, possibly as a prelude to using anger over the crash to promote its economic restructuring.

China needs development, but not ‘blood GDP,’ ” the Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily said last week.

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