Tuesday, July 26, 2011

China: Anger over high-speed rail crash

China's high speed trains are already running along the route where two trains collided on Saturday killing at least 43 people and injuring more than 200. No thorough forensic investigation appeared to have been carried out and the removal of wreckage began only hours after the crash. The apparent swiftness to clear away the damaged carriages and the failure by authorities to be forthcoming with details has prompted angry responses from Chinese Internet users, many accusing the government of covering up the true extent of the death toll.

The bullet train was struck from behind Saturday night by another train near Wenzhou in eastern Zhejiang province. The first train was forced to stop on the tracks due to a power outage said to have been caused by a local electrical storm. Minutes later the second train ploughed into the rear causing six cars to derail, including four that fell from an elevated bridge.

Foreigners amongst victims

Most of those killed and injured were Chinese who had been travelling on the second train between Beijing and Fuzhou. However it was revealed later that two Chinese-American citizens, aged 56 and 57, were amongst those killed. Italian embassy officials said one of its nationals was also killed in the crash. One report states a foreign female in her 20s was amongst those injured along with a 23-year-old Chinese-Italian man, named as Pan Giovanni, who was seriously injured and is receiving treatment at No 2 People's Hospital in Wenzhou. Another seriously injured foreigner is a 31-year-old Chinese-American. Many victims both foreign and Chinese have yet to be identified [China Daily /Sky].


Although Chinese reporters raced to the scene, none of the major state-run newspapers mentioned the story on their Sunday front pages. Early morning reports on CCTV-4 also failed to mention the story though CCTV-13, a Chinese news station, did have extensive coverage throughout Sunday.

But it was the social networks that helped many Chinese keep abreast of developments. A user of Sina Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter, first broke the story and increasingly popular social media outlets then provided millions of Chinese with the fastest information and pictures as well as the most poignant and scathing commentaries.

By the time the railway ministry held its first press conference more than 24 hours after the collision, the public had seen not just reports of passengers trapped inside dark trains or images of a mangled car dangling off the bridge, but also bulldozers crushing mangled cars that had fallen to the ground and burying the wreckage on site.

Cover up

Such scenes prompted some to suggest authorities were trying to cover up the real death toll by burying the carriages with the bodies still inside. Some video clips posted on Youku, China's equivalent to YouTube, appeared to show bodies falling from carriages as mechanical diggers began to clear the wreckage.

However, the accusations were dismissed by a defiant railway ministry spokesman Wang Yongping. "How can we cover up an accident that the whole world already knew about?" he said. "They told me they buried the car to facilitate the rescue effort -- and I believe this explanation."

But hours after the Railway Ministry had confirmed that all survivors were found a 2-year-old girl was discovered, appearing to indicate that authorities were too swift in moving the wrecked coaches. However the Ministry spokesperson Wang Youping rebuffed such criticism saying the girl's discovery was a "miracle." [BBC]

Protecting national technology

There have been other implausible explanations for the quick removal of wreckage from the railway ministry who said that the trains contain valuable national technology and could not be left in the open in case it fell into the wrong hands. However many foreign companies maintain that much of the technology used in China's high-speed trains was already stolen.

At least one picture appears to show a body under a train that has been moved several metres from its original position, another indication that a proper search of the coaches was not carried out before they were moved [Telegraph / CNN / Guardian].

Online reaction

Such statements have not placated many Chinese. An online poll of more than 44,000 people showed that 97% were unhappy with the government's response to the disaster, the first major tragedy on its much-vaunted high-speed rail network [China Digital Times / CMP].

There have been sketchy reports concerning the facts of the accident itself. The Railway Ministry issued a statement Saturday night saying that the first train had been struck by lightning and lost power. It did not explain why the second train was not signaled to stop, though some reports in Western media have suggested that communication between the trains was difficult or impossible due to the fact they were owned by different operators. In addition, new reports on Xinhua indicate that the first train had started to move by the time it was struck. The ministry has not explained the discrepancy. Also left unexplained was why railway signals did not stop the second train before it hit the first one [Economist / NYT].

Officials sacked

Heads have certainly rolled following the crash. Within a day three railway official had been sacked and they may yet be charged with some offences. They were identified as Long Jing, head of the Shanghai Railway Bureau; Li Jia, party secretary and the deputy chief of the bureau, He Shengli [Reuters]. No details have been released about the allegations against him, but news reports say they include kickbacks, bribes, illegal contracts and sexual liaisons [Al Jazeera].

The Communist party has been stumbling in its response. The accident comes after the opening of the Beijing to Shanghai line which was launched with great fanfare but has been dogged with problems.

Safety questions

The fallout will have long term repercussions for the future of China's high-speed rail network. Already there are reports that expected sales of China's high-speed technology may fall through [Bloomberg]. It also reflects poorly on China's safety record which has come under the spotlight many times.

One Sina Weibo user summed it up aptly in a post on Monday. "This is a country where a thunderstorm can cause a train to crash, a car can make a bridge collapse and drinking milk can lead to kidney stones. Today's China is a bullet train racing through a thunderstorm -- and we are all passengers onboard," microblogger Xiaoyaoyouliu said. His comment just is one of hundreds filling social networks in China [ChinaGeeks].

Surprisingly the state has yet to censor such comments thus far. Even videos on Youku remain online at this time, though this situation may change over time. The national press has even quoted some of the criticism with some papers calling for new procedures to prevent future accidents [Wikipedia: 2011 Wenzhou train collision]

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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