China's High-Speed Rail Woes
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China's High-Speed Rail Woes

 
 

Following a series of setbacks, including a fatal collision near the city of Wenzhou that claimed the lives of at least 40 people, China has announced it is suspending approval of any new high-speed rail lines.

Following a meeting yesterday presided over by Premier Wen Jiabao, the State Council also ordered safety checks on the country’s high-speed railway network, and demanded slower operating speeds after last month’s fatal collision raised concerns over whether safety has been sacrificed for speed in developing the network.

‘We feel deep guilt and sorrow about the tragic losses of life and property in the accident,’ Railways Minister Sheng Guangzu reportedly said at the meeting. Sheng also told the official Xinhua News Agency that ‘rails with a designed maximum speed of 350 kilometres per hour will run at 300 kilometres, those with designed maximum speed of 250 kilometres per hour will run at 200 kilometres per hour, and those whose speed has been lifted to 200 kilometres per hour will run at 160 kilometres per hour.’

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It has been a bad year for China’s high-speed network, which had been seen as a way of showcasing Chinese engineering prowess with an eye on the trains’ export potential. The new link between Beijing and Shanghai was launched with much fanfare on June 30, but during a four day period in the middle of July the network saw three major power outages that halted dozens of trains.

The ongoing technical problems followed an already tumultuous period for the ministry’s leadership, including the firing of former railways chief Liu Zhijin in February for corruption, as well as complaintsthat the powerful ministry was acting like an unaccountable fiefdom. Recently released figures for 2010 also showed the ministry’s debt had increased by 70 percent on a year earlier, to 2 trillion yuan.

Unsurprisingly, though, it has been the July 23 crash that has really rocked confidence, both in terms of safety and the official response. Somewhat bizarrely, officials quickly began burying parts of the train compartments involved in the crash, provoking uproar and stoking rumours of a cover-up. The protestations by Sheng that the decision to do so was ‘part of the rescue operation and not an attempt to hide evidence’ and that it ‘was necessary to bury the damaged carriages to make way for mechanical equipment to proceed with rescue efforts’ hardly inspired much confidence.

But more troubling has been speculation over the true number killed. The official death toll has remained at 40, which certainly seems on the low side considering the images of the damage to the carriages, one of which was left suspended from a bridge. Yet a number of sources have suggested that the death toll was in excess of 200, and that local officials fearing that the severity of any punishment meted out is directly proportional to the death toll have been quick to hand out compensation to keep families quiet.

Although the gathering source should be treated with some scepticism (the Falun Gong supporting Epoch Times is a strident critic of the Chinese government) there’s a good round up here of views on why the death toll numbers for the crash are somewhat suspicious.

So, would officials really try to downplay the death toll? If the thinking is anything like that around China’s notoriously dangerous coal mines, then they might have very good reason to do so.

According to writer Miles Yu, any reported death toll that ends with the number ‘9’, for example, should be regarded with a grain of salt because various internal rules say that if a death toll reaches a particular level (usually ending with ‘0’), local communist officials at a certain level will likely be fired. This means that the death tolls of mass incidents frequently end in ‘9’ depending, as Yu puts it bluntly, on ‘whose rear needs to be covered.’

Yu says the number-based punishment system started in Henan in May as the coal mining incidents there skyrocketed. Since then, the system has apparently been applied to many provinces. Yu pointed me to a piece he wrote a few months back in the Washington Times outlining the new system.

‘Should 50 or more miners die in a single accident each year, or if two accidents occur in one year and kill 30 to 49 miners each, the mayor in charge of the area where the accidents occurred will be fired. Communist officials across the nation hailed the new measure as decisive and a sign of the central government’s care for people’s lives,’ he wrote.

‘However, critics point out that the new approach will increase the incentive for local officials to falsely report the severity of any future mining accidents to avoid the indignity of being removed from office. Many believe that the deaths of 49 or 50 miners are equally tragic and should not be the standard used to force a mayor to lose his job or not.’

Such measures chime with this Chinese source from 2006, which outlines work safety regulations and the seriousness of the incident based on the numbers killed. Under the guidelines, 3 to 9 fatalities is considered a serious (zhongda) disaster, 10 to 29 a major (teda) disaster and more than 30 a very serious (tebie zhongda) incident.

It’s hard to see how revelations over such numbers won’t exacerbate a sense among many Chinese that the officials that rule them are more interested in watching their backs than in ensuring public safety.

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