Photo of the fleet of buses China gifted to Macedonia's government.
The commute to and from school can be a harrowing experience in many parts of China. As rush hour begins, children are piled into makeshift buses with complete disregard for safety regulations. Road fatalities are not uncommon. So it comes as no surprise that Beijing’s decision to donate nearly two dozen brand new buses to the small eastern European country of Macedonia raised hackles in China.
The controversy began in Macedonia’s capital Skopje on Friday, November 25 after China’s ambassador gifted the country a fleet of 23 sleek, double-decker school buses
. Built by the Chinese manufacturer Yutong, the buses hold 35 and are fitted with automatic doors, fire extinguishers and seatbelts. They will be used primarily for transporting students in Macedonia’s rural areas.
The gesture might have been favourably viewed were it not for the notoriety of China’s own catastrophic school transport system. There have been several recent accidents involving school buses, including one on the morning of November 16, when a truck slammed into a packed bus in China’s northwestern Gansu province. According to local media, the bus, which had space for nine, was carrying 64 passengers. Twenty people were killed in the incident, including one teacher and the bus driver. Two months before that, police stopped a similar minibus with 66 students on board. Twelve police vehicles were needed to shuttle the children back to their homes.
At this point, hundreds of thousands of Chinese Internet users have interpreted their country's gift to Macedonia as a form of betrayal. Some even carried their online campaign to a musical level, taking popular Chinese songs and reworking the lyrics. Here, for example, the refrain “Where is the spring?” has become “Where are our school buses?”
Other Internet users posted hundreds of caricatures poking fun at China’s government and what it views as its priorities, suggesting that in addition to concerns over safety, their outrage is directed at growing inequalities in the country.
As anger over the scandal grew, China’s Prime Minister Wen Jiabao announced Sunday that new safety regulations for school buses would be implemented within a month and that local authorities had agreed to invest in upgrading their transport systems.
“The money that should be used to improve our daily lives has been confiscated by corrupt bureaucrats”
Qiu Yong is an elementary school teacher in China’s northeastern city Beijing. He also has a Website
which he uses to broadcast his own talk show.
China is developing at a record pace, but the public service sector is struggling to keep up. People deserve a better way of life. The education system seems to be particularly problematic. If you have children, it’s very difficult to find a school, and once you do, the learning environment is usually not very good. The children are stuffed into tiny classrooms, and more often than not the school has little to no financial resources. This means that not everyone can afford to rent a real school bus, and as an alternative they turn to these old, beat-up mini-buses.
In stark contrast, you’ll see other civil servants driving themselves around in luxury cars – vehicles they reserve for their private use. The money that should be used to improve our daily lives has been confiscated by corrupt bureaucrats.
“China’s gift to Macedonia is unsurprising, but we have reached the end of our rope”
Even though China’s gift of 23 buses to Macedonia is unsurprising, it was poorly viewed because of all the recent accidents. Everyone on the Internet is very worried, myself included. We have reached the end of our rope. China is much poorer than one imagines. The GDP is low [China’s GDP was estimated at $7,600 per capita in 2010, ranking it at 125 in a list of 227 countries measured by the CIA’s World Fact Book
. In comparison, Macedonia had an average GDP of $9,700 per capita in 2010]. Despite this, we’re the ones who are giving! Our supposed generosity is just ridiculous.
My son is barely a year old, and my wife and I already joke that we would rather keep him home than send him to school on a bus.”