Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.

The significance of China’s high-speed train crash [Straits Times]


Singapore: Straits Times correspondent Tracy Quek, and I recall sharing her sentiments both times I managed to use the high-speed rail – ‘On my first ride, I marvelled at the sleek, white carriages, the spotless interiors, the warmth of the service staff, and above all, the smoothness and comfort of the journey…. This is the way to travel! This is the face of progress! The United States (where I have been working since mid-2009) should get its act together and build its own high-speed rail network, I remember telling myself as I snapped a picture of the monitor in the cabin showing the train’s speed hitting 300km/h.’

In this instance, she reveals that little has changed over China’s handing of disasters such as this, with news that officials had ordered the damaged train carriages buried, and that China’s Railway Ministry has been less than forthright about what caused the crash, offering only vague responses to reporters seeking details.

– – –

The significance of China’s high-speed train crash
Tracy Quek, US Correspondent
Source – Straits Times, published July 26, 2011

For the past month, I have been a regular commuter on China’s high speed trains, zipping up and down the country between major cities including Nanjing, Wuxi and Shanghai.

On my first ride, I marvelled at the sleek, white carriages, the spotless interiors, the warmth of the service staff, and above all, the smoothness and comfort of the journey.

This is the way to travel! This is the face of progress! The United States (where I have been working since mid-2009) should get its act together and build its own high-speed rail network, I remember telling myself as I snapped a picture of the monitor in the cabin showing the train’s speed hitting 300km/h.

Then last Saturday night, two high-speed trains near Wenzhou city in Zhejiang province collided, killing at least 35 passengers and injuring over 200. The crash took place several hours before my own scheduled train journey from Shanghai to Nanjing.

Family and friends who had caught the breaking news were a little concerned, sending emails and phone messages to ask if I was affected. I felt no trepidation as I made my way to the bustling Shanghai railway station. There, I detected no concern or talk of the accident among the hordes of commuters waiting for their trains. The waiting halls were packed as usual with people and their belongings taking up most of the seats.

My 11/2 hour journey was uneventful, except for a grandmother trying to rein in her boisterous twin grandsons and a peckish passenger across the aisle littering the ground with sunflower seed hulls.

My confidence in the safety and efficiency of China’s high speed rail system, however, has been a little shaken in the days following Saturday’s tragic accident.

China’s Railway Ministry has been less than forthright about what caused the crash, offering only vague responses to reporters seeking details. Local news outlets have received orders from propaganda officials to give the accident a wide berth, according to foreign media reports.

But what left me most incredulous was news that officials had ordered the damaged train carriages buried – barely 35hours following the accident.

Surely officials could not have completed a thorough and detailed investigation into the causes of the crash in such a short time, could they? This was either a new record for efficiency or a blatant cover-up.

In the absence of straight answers from railway officials, one should not jump to conclusions but the outrage among Chinese netizens speaks volumes.

It is unsettling to think that thousands of commuters, myself included, could be travelling on high-speed trains that may be lacking some of the required emergency safety mechanisms. This thought begets other disconcerting questions about China’s high-speed rail network including official claims about its technology, quality and adherence to standards.

Most of all, the recent crash and myriad other problems plaguing the network once again underscore the need to change a political culture in which high officials push for “status projects” despite the risks and costs, and the accompanying tendency to obfuscate and withhold important information from the public, especially when a politically-damaging event occurs.

No matter how many officials Beijing sacks, or how quickly top leaders rush to the scene, the official response to the Wenzhou crash has only further sullied the image of the Chinese Communist Party at home, and at a particularly sensitive time before next year’s major leadership change.

Abroad, it will reinforce the opinion that China’s fast and seemingly unstoppable development rests on shaky foundations – that behind a façade of much-vaunted progress lie corruption, greed, lax enforcement, a weak adherence to standards, and worst of all, a disregard for human life.

Despite my recent misgivings, I still generally consider high-speed rail in China a safe, convenient and relatively more environmentally-friendly way to travel.

I can only hope as I board another fast train in the coming days that Chinese officials will learn from this incident and that they, as the country hurtles forward on its development path, not fall further prey to hubris – the pride that goes before the fall.

(Tracy Quek is currently on study leave. She is a Masters of International Public Policy (China Studies) candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC)

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Filed under: Automotive, Chinese Model, Civil Engineering, Domestic Growth, High Speed Rail, Media, Politics, Straits Times, The Chinese Identity, The construction of Chinese and Non-Chinese identities, Transport

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