China today is a train traveling through a lightning storm. None of us are spectators; all of us are passengers.
—A Chinese user of Sina.com’s Weibo, a Twitter-like Internet application, July 24th, 2011
On the night of July 23, 2011, China’s perceptions about its society, its leadership, and the direction in which the country was developing shattered like a mirror under a hammer blow. Even the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was forced to recognize its own disjointed reflection in the glare of the frightful lightning strike that changed the course of the central government’s momentum for global leadership status. A high-speed train traveling nearly 400 kilometers per hour (240 miles per hour) came to a crawl and then a full-stop when lightning struck the high-tension wire that had lured it through the mountainous countryside. Night poured into the disabled train, black as pitch. Suddenly great sparks sprayed from the tail-end of the marooned vessel as another express train smashed into it like the hammer of a gun firing its load into the gully below. Forty people died that night. Two hundred more were injured.
Just three weeks before the incident, CCP officials were extolling the virtues of their super-fast trains to the international community. They charmed the Americans with the promise of cheap high-speed rail to lace together its far-flung cities. They told the Germans “finder’s keepers” in reference to the train technology the Chinese had acquired from the Europeans ...