At least 18 people were buried in south-west China when a landslide slammed into a school this week. This is just the latest in a series of tragic incidents that seem to show the country's infrastructure falling apart.
While it's not clear yet whether this catastrophe is more related to natural forces than human negligence, it touches a nerve because people in China have often suffered when poor construction and design – caused by corruption and mismanagement – have led to similar failures.
More, bigger, faster
In recent years, China has embarked on a massive programme of constructing highways, bridges, dams, ports, high-speed rail lines and more. Despite the country's spectacular growth, and reports of a newly affluent urban middle class, most of China is still rural and poor, and Chinese leaders have poured hundreds of billions of dollars into creating the foundation for economic growth across the country.
But when a flood of money is poured into an authoritarian system, with little transparency and accountability to the people, it's a recipe for corruption and mismanagement. And this has led to countless tragedies.
A powerful example was the earthquake that hit Sichuan province in 2008. Thousands of buildings such as schools, hospitals and factories collapsed – failures widely attributed to shoddy construction. Local officials were accused of giving construction contracts to cronies and family, skimming money off the top, and cutting corners. Inferior materials and slipshod techniques were used: what the Chinese came to call "tofu" construction. When angry parents of children who had died when their schools collapsed demanded investigations into corrupt officials, they were persecuted.
The years since have seen a growing string of spectacular (and usually fatal) infrastructure failures, just a few of which include the toppling of a block of 13-storey apartments in Shanghai, a fallen fire station in Guangzhou, a disintegrating high-speed rail line in Hubei province, not to mention six major bridge collapses within a year.
The real China
This is what happens when you have government that's neither transparent nor accountable to the people. So let's draw smart conclusions from this.
Much of the western media, particularly in the US, tends to frame the rise of China as a global power in terms of threat: its growing economic clout, its increasing military assertiveness, its dominating trade presence. The image conjured is a fearful one, of China as a massive monolith of worker bees coming to eat westerners' lunch.
But look at China through a different lens, and it's easy to see a country that's not only immense, but immensely complex, diverse and subtle. And while the leadership in Beijing does its best to project that "monolith" image, better to defend its hold on power, there is a growing network of cracks in that wall. Those cracks allow outsiders to see the people of China struggling to raise their families, improve their lives and make the world a better place, just like everybody else.
All this, while they're burdened with an ossified government that's protecting its privileges, mismanaging the economy, oppressing ethnic and religious minorities, degrading the environment and stifling free expression.
So, let's wish the Chinese people well. Their challenges – and how they rise to meet them – reflect the hurdles people all over the world face in this often daunting century. And if they manage to thrive in the future, so will many of the rest of us.
Read more: NPR correspondent Rob Gifford crossed China by road, and produced this excellent series of on-the-ground reports.
Sources: AP, CNN, New York Times, Diplomat, Telegraph, Global Post, Bloomberg, BBC, Avaaz, NPR